The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim began their 49th season down the street from Disneyland on Monday night, and with the usual opening-game pomp came some strange circumstance.
First, the usual stuff was there.
Both teams lined the baselines and were introduced, from assistant trainers up the team food chain to multimillionaires in baseball cleats.
The mandatory giant American flag was unwrapped all the way across the outfield, a nice prelude to the landing of three Navy parachutists, sailing in from 3,000 feet. They missed their giant yellow mark behind second base, but did well in swirling winds to get down softly in the outfield. The third man in carried another big American flag.
Then it got unusual.
Vladimir Guerrero, former Angels star outfielder now retired, was given the honor of throwing a first ceremonial pitch. His catcher was Don Baylor, a beloved former Angels player who is now, at age 64, the team’s hitting coach.
Guerrero pitched low and outside. Baylor went down and to his right to get it, and couldn’t get up. They carried him into the dugout and the report came later that he had broken his right thigh bone and will have surgery Tuesday.
Baylor had crouched behind the same home plate that the home run-celebrating Kendrys Morales jumped on four years ago and broke his leg.
The first real pitch hadn’t been thrown and the Angels, who have had trouble with this beginning stuff the last few years, were off to a bad start. At least it wasn’t one of the multimillionaires in cleats.
Within minutes, the bad karma turned good.
The new Mickey Mantle of baseball, young Mike Trout, came to the plate with new leadoff hitter Kole Calhoun on first after a single. Trout was greeted by chants of “MVP.” The Angels now have their own Kobe.
Trout responded just like Mickey would have. He cranked a shot over the left-field fence for a 2-0 lead and the sold-out opening-night crowd of 44,152 was ecstatic.
After no playoffs since 2009 and with the memory of the 2002 World Series title getting dimmer and dimmer, the folks in red jammed into all corners of the Big A wanted an omen for the season and Trout had given them one. Sad for Baylor — the American League MVP with the Angels in 1979, back when he went by the nickname “Groove” — but they don’t pay money to see him play anymore.
Hours before the game, Mike Scioscia sat in his office and expertly balanced optimism with reality. He was about to begin his 15th season as Angels manager and that in itself is no small thing. Only 13 other men in the history of the game have managed a team for 15 straight seasons.
Nevertheless, he is in a funny spot.
He has plenty of security. His contract takes him through the 2018 season, an almost unheard-of endorsement by baseball management for a dugout chief.
He also has plenty of talent to put on the field. Besides Trout, there is certain Hall of Famer Albert Pujols and good possibility Josh Hamilton. On the mound was another in that category, right-hander Jered Weaver.
If you went just by payroll, Scioscia’s team would be given a bye into the playoffs. Starting with Trout’s new contract next season, the Angels will spend enough on player salaries to purchase a small country — and have plenty left over for redecorating.
Scioscia knows better than anyone that this game was only the first of 162. Before playoffs.
He said one of the ways the Angels have attempted to address the failures of recent years, especially the slow starts, is to get more aggressive sooner. Spring training was not allowed to be a casual ease-in to the regular season.
“I didn’t just like that we won a lot of games this spring,” he said, “but I liked the way we won them.”
He said pitching coach Mike Butcher was especially instrumental in pushing this agenda. “If we get off to the start we anticipate,” Scioscia said, “Mike will deserve a lot of the credit.”
Scioscia characterized much of last season’s pitching problems — bullpen collapses, starters not going deep enough into the game —as shortcomings hard to conceal. “If you peeled the paint back,” he said, “you could see the warts.”
He said the perception he and General Manager Jerry Dipoto don’t get along is wrong. “We’ve evolved into a good team,” Scioscia said.
And he admitted some of the off-season moves, such as the acquisition of veteran third baseman David Freese and pitchers Tyler Skaggs and Fernando Salas, were tough because they came at a high price, the loss of young stars Peter Bourjos and Mark Trumbo.
“I winced,” Scioscia said. “But I understood.”
Sadly for the Angels, on this first of 162, the warts were still there. Pitching warts. Bullpen warts.
Weaver left after 61/3 with the scored tied, 3-3. Salas came in and gave up the hit that allowed the Mariners to take a 4-3 lead. Kevin Jepsen yielded a three-run homer in the ninth to Justin Smoak that made it 7-3 and Nick Maronde gave up a three-run triple to Dustin Ackley.
It was 10-3 and the Angels’ bullpen wasn’t putting out fire, but throwing kerosene on it again.
Poor Don Baylor was in pain. So were Angels fans.
It’s a new season. Or is it?