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Anderson’s ascent to the majors is worthwhile tale

They were the words of a T-ball coach, written to a 4-year-old on the occasion of the kid being named MVP.

“See you in the big leagues,” read the inscription on a baseball that this week went from being a memento to being something monumental.

Because, 21 years later, the kid actually reached the big leagues, in his own hometown, in a stunning debut against the reigning World Series champs, in a promotion so unexpected that, when a member of the Angels’ traveling party first saw Justin Anderson at the team hotel, a series of bewildered double-takes followed.

No matter where the story of 2018 Angels ends up, one terrific tale already has been spun.

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“Amazing,” Anderson’s girlfriend, Briana Smith, said. “There’s no way this is real life.”

But it is real, very real, as real as the slider Anderson threw Monday night to strike out Houston’s Carlos Correa, ending an eighth-inning threat, helping preserve a 2-0 victory and igniting a small cheering section that filled an otherwise hushed Minute Maid Park with euphoric squeals.

Smith jumped up, climbed onto her seat, punched her right hand into the air and turned to hug the people behind her. The reaction, too, was real, especially since the group already had been asked by Astros fans seated nearby to please sit down and be quiet.

“Outside, there wasn’t anything,” Anderson’s father, John, said of his emotions. “Inside, it was everywhere. It was like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’ The ride is what really threw us off.”

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The ride, from opening the season in double-A Mobile to a promotion after three games to triple-A Salt Lake to another promotion to Anaheim after only three more games.

All for a reliever not previously on the Angels’ 40-man roster, a player who had appeared in spring training the past two seasons only as a late-inning extra from minor league camp.

Yeah, Anderson had pitched well in those appearances. But even his biggest supporters -- his parents -- still figured at best he might be called up sometime this summer or maybe when the roster expand in September.

They were listening to Salt Lake’s game Sunday, a wild game the Bees would eventually win 11-9, and couldn’t understand why the play-by-play man kept insisting the team was running out of pitching.

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Salt Lake had used five relievers but none of them were Anderson. John started thinking that perhaps his son was being traded. Anderson’s mother, Karen, was thinking something worse: He was hurt.

Twenty minutes after the game, John’s phone rang and he looked to see that it was Justin calling.

Placed on speaker so Mom and Dad could hear this together, Justin told them the reason why he hadn’t pitched for the Bees. I’m going to Anaheim. Soon, all three of them were crying.

He already had called his girlfriend, the news sending Smith into a sprinting fit around her parents’ backyard. She was so excited that she found eating and simply sitting still impossible the rest of the day.

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She had just bought a ticket to Salt Lake City. But, upon hearing I’m going to Anaheim, Smith knew that’s also where she was headed.

Before buying another ticket, she figured she better double-check the Angels’ schedule. She was the first to realize Anderson wasn’t going to Anaheim at all. Not yet, at least.

He instead would be meeting the Angels in Houston, to play the team he grew up rooting for, in a stadium eight miles from where he starred in high school at St. Pius X.

Smith texted Anderson, who later would admit that, until hearing it from his girlfriend, he had no idea his flight from Salt Lake City was bound not for the Angels’ home but for his own.

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All these worlds coming together had the feel of something stronger than fate, a bit of impossible fortune Anderson’s mother believes was determined in a place higher than the Angels’ front office.

Her brother, Jim Lenahan, was particularly close to Anderson before dying of a heart attack in 2015. The two of them were texting each other just before Lenahanpassed, Anderson realizing his uncle was gone when the texts stopped.

Since then, Anderson often has pitched while bearing Lenahan’s initials. On his cleats, his glove. Several members of the family still wear bracelets in remembrance.

“In my heart, this is my brother at work,” Karen said. “My brother is Justin’s angel, watching over him.”

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Anderson’s debut began with two quick outs. Then George Springer and Jose Altuve singled.

Up in the stands, Briana Smith sat down and began praying. Karen tried to convince herself this was just another game. John knew, if the count reached two strikes, his son would throw Correa a slider.

All three of them were so focused on the moment they don’t remember hearing Anderson being introduced. They also forgot to take a picture of the scoreboard with his name on it or any pictures of him on the mound.

When he struck out Correa with that slider, Anderson just walked off the mound, easily the most muted reaction among this extended, frenzied group of family and friends.

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But then, this is a pitcher who, if the subject of occupation ever comes up among strangers, likes to tell people he’s an engineer.

“Justin isn’t a big, showy person,” Karen Anderson said. “He’s very humble and quiet, professional.”

And now he’s a big-leaguer, forever a part of this game’s history, 21 years after a baseball itself told him so.

jmiller2929@yahoo.com

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