Here comes the problem with Interleague play. We're going against a team I like.
Don't get me wrong. I still want to beat the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim three straight. That is not in doubt. There is no conflict of interest here. When we last played them, out there in 2003, they weren't eight months removed from the glow of the victory that enthralled me so. And I wanted to beat them then. But I never stopped appreciating what they had not long before accomplished.
Remember 2002? Not our part of it. That was a disaster. I'm talking about October 2002 when the Angels knocked off the defending American League champions in four games in the American League Division Series and then went on to do even better things.
This isn't just random Yankee-bashing following an aggravating Thursday night loss to the Astros. This was huge in its day. It wasn't just about beating the Yankees, although that alone would be cause for a national prayer of thanksgiving. Since 1995, the Yankees had held the post-season hostage. As long as they were in it, I could never really enjoy it. Instead of picking out a positive horse to root on, I cheered for the pinstriped colt to break its leg and be destroyed (cruel language, but look where they had my head). Even when the Mets were involved, just knowing the Yankees were doing their dirty deeds detracted from the delight.
Arizona? Arizona, you ask? Didn't the Diamondbacks slay the beast a year earlier? Yes, sure, absolutely. And I loved them for what they did, you can book it. But as wonderful as their seventh-game, ninth-inning comeback was in the 2001 World Series, what the hell took them so long? Drama is drama, but the Yankees got an entire October and a piece of November to hang around and be…Yankees. They had the middle three games of that World Series to weave their wicked spell and fashion comebacks that gave them all kinds of miracle cred. Miracle? That's OUR word.
But by taking care of business early in the '02 post-season, the Angels put an end to all that talk before it could begin. Beautiful.
The greatest gift we got that year was October. They gave me the October I knew when I was 8 and thrilled to the Pirates beating the Orioles; the October when I was 12 and cherished the Red Sox for showing so much heart; the stray October when at the ripe, old age of 27, I was on board for the Reds' underdog victorious run. My teams of convenient passion didn't always win, but they always gave me something to root for, not rail against. I missed that so much.
Call it the Big Halo Taxi school of thought: Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you got 'til it returns?
It wasn't the first time I rooted for the Angels and meant it. There was 1986. Memorial Day. Not unlike 2005, the Mets weren't scheduled. So I gave into morbid curiosity. I went to Yankee Stadium. Yankees vs. Angels.
It was a great game, which I watched from underneath an adjustable, mesh California Angels cap, purchased right there at The Stadium. Points for apparel selection, I'll give them that. But the rest of it was a meh. This was what all the fuss was about? This was so big and so daunting? No it wasn't. I looked from right to left and thought this isn't imposing — it's just a baseball stadium. Not even a very good one. I approve of baseball, but this isn't the place to have it. Actually, even though it was a holiday and there was a decent crowd and the weather was gorgeous, it was kind of depressing. They kept playing a grainy tribute to Thurman Munson on the scoreboard. It was tragic that he died, but he died seven years earlier. Generally speaking, the crowd seemed cowed by years of Steinbrenner's bullying. Nobody said a damn thing about my Angels cap.
As for the game, Wally Joyner hit a two-run job off Dave Righetti in the top of the ninth to beat the Yankees 8-7. The ballpark was mediocre but the result was great. It proved that when I really gave them my focus, the Angels won at Yankee Stadium.
I never enjoyed myself at Yankee Stadium again (been back four times, came away annoyed four times) but I still have that Angels cap. It came out of mothballs for October 2002. It was worn in salute to the team that used to be California but was now Anaheim (and are whatever they say are today). As the Angels clubbed the Yankees into submission, I came to know each individual seraph on a post-season basis. I liked them.
Darin Erstad was intense. Scott Spiezio played in a band. Alex Ochoa, our five-tool failure? Their defensive replacement. Brad Fullmer was a reformed Expo. Adam Kennedy, a Cardinal for about 10 minutes, was scrappy, though not as scrappy as David Eckstein who appeared to be the love child of Lenny Dykstra and Freddie Patek. Garret Anderson looked every inch the MVP candidate they said he was. Tim Salmon was Rookie of the Year in that league the same year as Piazza was in ours but seemed older. Their starters left something to be desired, but their bullpen was gutsy and this kid K-Rod, Frankie Rodriguez, well he wouldn't have looked bad in a Mets uniform. But he was serving his country in a more important capacity.
Game Four of that ALDS was a celebration in our house. We were saying hello to Hozzie, the kitten we'd just adopted as a successor to the late, lamented Casey. Hozzie had been confined to the bathroom for about ten days while he acclimated himself to his surroundings. That Saturday was his coming-out party, the first time we would let him and Bernie interact. They hit it off famously, but not as hard as the Angels hit it off David Wells. We were saying hello to Hozzie and goodbye to the Yankees that afternoon.
What a wonderful way for a kitten to make his official debut.
By the time the Angels qualified for the World Series, there was no doubt they were my team for the duration. Sure their ALCS opponents, the Twins, had one of my favorite all-time Mets in Rick Reed and yeah, the Giants had been the New York Giants, but neither of those factors had any pull. It was all about the team that brought down the Yankees, brought out the ThunderStix and brought back October. I wasn't rooting against anybody this time. I was rooting for Anaheim.
As if I needed further confirmation I'd made the right call, I found it during the introductions to Game One of the World Series in Anaheim. When it came time to call out the home team, the P.A. blasted the opening notes to Norman Greenbaum's Spirit In The Sky. I suppose it was a play on Angels or a tribute to Gene Autry, but it choked me up.
Why? Because that was my song for Casey all summer long. He had died at the end of June and I came to think of him immediately as my spirit in the sky. Yes, cat people are capable of some squirrely thinking, but there it is. Now it was a must that the Angels ascend to heaven.
I wasn't the only one who thought so. I watched them split the first two games of the Series from a hotel room in Atlanta. When I returned home, I found Stephanie had redecorated our apartment.
With rally monkeys.
Not the officially licensed ones by any means, but five stuffed monkeys from Pathmark. Four to cheer the Angels forward with. One for Hozzie to make his own.
It wasn't front-runnerdom. It was October. It was exciting. It was a matter of loving the one you're with for a few blessed weeks. It's the autumn fling we fall back on when we don't have our own involved. It didn't compare to living and dying with the Mets but it sure beat the hell out of rooting against the Yankees.
The Angels eventually did their thing. In one of the less-remembered incredible comebacks ever, they fell behind the Giants three games to two and then spotted San Francisco a 5-0 lead in the seventh inning of Game Six. Game Six? Did somebody say Game Six? Funny things happen in Game Sixes, you know. Like Dusty Baker removing Russ Ortiz but not before tossing him the ball to say “cherish this talisman from the clinching game you've all but won.” Key words: all but. The Angels roared back. Won Game Six. Won Game Seven.
The Anaheim Angels were world champions for the first time ever. There were many to be happy for but nobody deserved it more, I decided, than the Orange County version of me whom I never met but know existed. He was a very frustrated 39-year-old who had gone without for his entire rooting life. But he hung in there with his team. Their failures only made him more determined to achieve his final goal. And now it was upon him. The Angels had won for that guy. Over here on the East Coast, I channeled his joy.
It was a great October, one that still resonates quite a bit in this teensy-weensy corner of Metsopotamia. But that's pretty much all the Angels are to me: that October and maybe that one Memorial Day when I bought the cap. Roger Angell — no relation — once wrote that “it's always useful to have two teams to care about.” I don't need two teams (or five stuffed monkeys for that matter). I have the Mets. Watching them this year is like watching at least two teams.
Through the pretzel logic of Interleague play, the Angels are the enemies this weekend. That's all they can be for now. But them and me, we'll always have then.