I don’t wander down to the playground or the Little League fields. I don’t drop what I’m doing for high school or college ball. Even the occasional minor league game that flickers across the screen doesn’t do much for me. Though any baseball beats no baseball, baseball without a strong and informed rooting interest doesn’t do all that much for me. October baseball, the theoretical pinnacle of the sport, still needs to hatch a rooting interest to have me completely engaged. At this late date, I’m not entirely sure I have one between the Rockies and the Red Sox. One will probably make itself known to me by Wednesday night.
Put the Mets in the playoffs (give them an 8-game lead with 16 to go to ensure it) and I’ve got my rooting interest. Burden us with another New York team and I have, at the very least, a spiteful rooting-against interest. The rest of the time, I make it up as I go along. Sometimes it’s fleeting, sometimes it’s grounded, sometimes it’s capricious. One October not so long ago, it was cherubic…and a little feline.
A very little feline .
Some of you might recall the tale of Casey the Cat , whose biography I shared with you on a Friday in June. Casey was the incredibly affectionate tabby who touched and tongued all whom he encountered. The story I told you, involving the departure of a beloved pet, couldn’t help but be a sad one. Today, on the eve of what will be a very good week for a very lucky set of fans, I’d like to offer a postscript to Casey’s story. It’s the part where life went on and eventually felt good again.
Casey the Cat was irreplaceable. But Stephanie and I knew he would be succeeded.
He had to be. Casey had made us a two-cat household and his big little brother Bernie required company. It felt wrong to deny him a companion (or at least an obstacle to his eating all the cat food in sight). But we required time and then closure. The loss of Casey on June 28, 2002 stayed very fresh all summer. July passed. So did August. We’ll look for a new cat in September, we said.
First, though, a task. We had Casey’s cremated remains — cremains, they’re called — which is an odd thing to have. It’s your cat, but it’s not, y’know? It felt right to have what there was to have of him, but these were ashes. And aren’t you supposed to scatter ashes? You don’t have to, but it sounded lovely in its way. Closure, remember?
We decided to keep some and scatter some. But where? Casey was an indoor cat. The carpet would have been most appropriate, I suppose. Instead, we chose to leave a little around the tree in our front yard (which he stared at when birds would alight) and take some more to our nearby park. There was a bay there. That was it; we’d scatter Casey’s cremains into the water. Cats didn’t like water, but this wasn’t for him. This was for us.
It was going to be all solemn, as you can imagine. We waited for the Tuesday after Labor Day when I assumed everybody would be back at school and work and we’d have the park to ourselves. But everybody apparently decided to extend their vacations an extra day. There were Frisbees flying and barbecues blazing and swimmers and fishermen and, gosh, everybody under the sun. There weren’t five unoccupied feet of shoreline to scatter Casey.
So we did it in broad daylight in front of whomever might have been watching. Casey always did like people.
We took the rest of him home and set him up in a Native American-made receptacle we bought at Foxwoods in August when I helped Stephanie lead her senior center members on a daytrip. Placed him on top of the television so he’d always be in our direct line of sight. Casey was an indoor cat, we were indoor people.
The Casey Era ended in June. The mourning period wound down the day after Labor Day. Thoughts of him would remain constant for a year or more.
The Remo Era began on September 22, 2002. It ended on September 25, 2002. It’s three days I’d prefer to forget completely.
A lady at Stephanie’s center heard we might be looking for a cat (as had everybody we knew that summer who wanted to place a deserving kitten — when the Princes have a cat opening, word of it spreads among cat people like news of a Vatican vacancy does among Roman Catholics). The twist was this lady lived in Queens. In Flushing, no less. How can you overlook a sign like that?
What wasn’t completely comprehended by us was this cat, who we drove out to see on a Sunday when the Mets were in Montreal, was an outdoor cat. He wasn’t domesticated. But he was so friendly! That was the word. And we fell for it. We showed up, the cat came scurrying toward us and right into our carrier. Satisfied that he seemed nice enough, we snapped him up and took him home.
“The adventure begins,” I announced to Stephanie as we walked our unnamed adoptee back to the car. That line was from an ’80s movie I had never actually seen but whose title (and Tommy Shaw theme) stuck with me: Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins. Right then and there we called the cat Remo.
Should have called him a cab instead.
It was a poor, poor fit, beginning the second he realized he wasn’t going to be able to roam the streets of Flushing any longer. Don’t know if it was the dizzying experience of being whisked to Long Island or he just had a taste for kimchi, but Remo didn’t want any part of us or wherever we were taking him. That much was apparent when he ruined the carrier on the way home.
When Remo wasn’t hiding in the apartment, he was destroying something. When he wasn’t destroying something, he was attacking Stephanie. Swiping at her. Not playfully, but feral-like. We had ushered Bernie into the bedroom for the duration of the planned transition period, but nothing was taking. Bernie was miserable alone, Remo was miserable with us and, in a sentiment familiar to every Mets fan that September, we wanted to undo the enormous mistake of 2002.
Trust me. This was worse than trading for Alomar. Stephanie, unflappable Stephanie, was near tears trying to cope with Remo’s hostility by Tuesday the 24th. Our plan was to lasso him, stuff him back in the carrier, get him to our vet for a checkup and appropriate procedures and get him the bleep out of our house forever. The strategy could best be described as Rescue and Godspeed, Remo. Go be somebody else’s problem (our vet gave her blessing to the plan, acknowledging that some cats aren’t meant to be housecats).
So I come home that Tuesday night. Remo has finally been captured. He’s in his carrier in the kitchen, not to be let out until his appointment the next morning. Bernie is sulking in the bedroom, wondering what he did to deserve quarantine. And though I know she’s not in there, I find Stephanie has closed the bathroom door. Strange, I think, she never closes the door when it’s vacant. What could be in here?
Another cat, that’s what. One over our legal limit.
At wit’s end with Remo, Stephanie visited our local pet store in search of answers or maybe a stun gun. What she found was a tiny kitten too awesome to pass up. Thus, she didn’t. She adopted this legitimately friendly, legitimately loving tabby — a tabby! like Casey! — on the spot. It was the Best Available Athlete theory of drafting. We didn’t really need another cat, but when there’s that much talent left on the board, you grab it.
I open the bathroom door and there’s the tabby, a gray and brown and…oh, all kinds of markings. He’s sitting on top of the toilet (the lid was down — he wasn’t that amazing) and staring at me. Stephanie has left on the lights and the radio (tuned to classical WQXR) to help him adjust to his new surroundings. I reach out for him. He doesn’t flinch. I pick him up. He doesn’t mind. I play with him. He plays with me.
This was our cat.
Stephanie took two cats to the vet the next day. They were both fixed…up and checked out and given clean bills of health. Then, with only a trace element of reluctance, she opened Remo’s carrier outside the house and he ran out. She ran inside and slammed the front door behind her. What would become of our three-day cat? As it turned out, nothing bad, to the best of our knowledge. Remo enjoyed being a neighborhood cat. We put out food for him, but we needn’t have bothered. A lot of people put out food for him. Remo was a survivor. He just wanted nothing to do with us.
The other cat she brought inside, he’s the one who stayed. I named him Hosmer, for Hosmer Mountain Bottling, a tribute to a very small soft drink company in Connecticut. He went from Hosmer to Hozzie in about a minute. We set him up in the bathroom for further acclimation (changing the station on my watch to jazzy WBGO) but were so enthused by his progress that we sped up our schedule of cat interaction. We opened the bathroom door and let Hozzie wander the apartment. We introduced him to Bernie and Bernie to Hozzie. I had read all kinds of horror stories of what happened when older, set-in-their-ways cats were exposed to interloping kittens. It wasn’t pretty.
But this was. Hozzie instantly adored Bernie (all Princes did). Played a spirited round of Hop On Pop with him. Bernie, then ten years old, instantly tolerated Hozzie. Occasionally brushed him off when he was too enthusiastic (think Garfield and Nermal) and indulged his Big Cat prerogative of eating while the newbie watched and waited, but welcomed him into the family. I swear I began to think that when Stephanie and I left the house, it was OK, because Bernie would babysit Hozzie.
It was early October by now. October the Fifth, Game Four of the only LDS that had captured my imagination, the American League Division Series between the dreaded Yankees and the unfamiliar Anaheim Angels. The Yankees won the first game at Yankee Stadium, which is what everybody said they’d do. Then they lost the second game, which wasn’t expected at all. The Angels, despite their deceptive name, murdered Andy Pettitte, the deep, brooding face of all those awful American League Octobers since 1995. Even the damaging presence of ex-Met Kevin Appier on their side of the mound couldn’t hurt my Anaheim amigos. The Angels, who were supposed to shrivel at the thought of Lou Gehrig (let alone the sight of his monument), pounded the Yankee bullpen into submission. They…or as I was coming to think of them, we won 8-6.
When Fox posted the starting lineups for Game Three, Stephanie riddled me this: “Wanna know another reason I hate the Yankees?” “You had me at ‘I hate the Yankees,’” I should’ve said. But her explanation was just as good: “Because I recognize all their names.” Damn October familiarity. Boy was I hoping my new favorite American League team could turn the Yankees into strangers lightning-quick.
Game Three was in Anaheim. No preapproved postseason cachet there. Not before October 2002. But now, yes. It was probably a bad example to set, but Angels management — Disney, they were called — handed out a pair of long, red plastic tubes to every fan as he or she entered. They were called ThunderStix. They made ThunderNoise. It was kinda ThunderBush, but it wasn’t illegal. It may have been intimidating. Poor Yankees didn’t know what hit them. To be honest, the slamming of the Stix must not have bothered them too much at first because they did hang a 6-1 lead on the board by the second. But Mike Mussina surely heard the thunder.
Mike Mussina had signed with the Yankees to win a ring. And for a vast amount of money. They always say it’s the first thing, but it’s probably more about the second. Mike Mussina wasn’t the first free agent to go the route of the ring, but he was the first, it would turn out, who didn’t always get what he wanted, jewelrywise. Perhaps that was because Mike Mussina — paving the presumptuous ringless way for Giambi, Matsui, Sheffield, Rodriguez, Pavano, Damon, Clemens II — was a creature of habit and demanded extra concentration. I know this because the Yankees play a lot of big games and even if I don’t want to know what their players are up to, I wind up hearing about it. As the third game progressed, Mussina could hear the ThunderStix loud and clear. They indeed worked lightning-quick. They were not part of his plan. What had been a five-run lead for Mussina was Thundered into oblivion by those Angelic warclubs — the bats and maybe the Stix. Mussina was gone after four. He was followed by Weaver, Stanton and Karsay, all of whom surrendered runs, lots of runs, juicy, mouthwatering runs.
Final score of Game Three: Angels 9 Yankees 6. Angles led the series two games to one. The Angels were one game from clinching.
This was the danger zone. I was so, so, SO excited. But I’d been here with Oakland, the bastards. They led 2-0 the year before, but it was a little too easy. It was eerie. It was a setup. That was when the Yankees flew to Oakland and executed that play where their shortstop, whose name escapes me at the moment, flipped a ball to their catcher from the first base line and Jeremy Giambi stood still for his tagging at home and everything went down the crapper after that. But gosh, the Angels felt different. This wasn’t the A’s where their best player, Jeremy Giambi’s brother, was biding his time so he could get in on some of that Steinbrenner ring & money action. The Angels were pure of heart. I could sense it.
I didn’t know shinola about these Angels, but I was learning and I was loving. 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. Troy Glaus was monstrous. Tim Salmon was Rookie of the Year in that league the same year as Piazza 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 look bad in a Mets uniform. But he was serving his country in a more important capacity right then.
Maybe they could do it. Maybe the Angels could beat the Yankees in the Division Series. Maybe Angels. Hey, didn’t Sheryl Crow have a song by that name? I dug out her second album and found it:
I swear they’re out there,
I swear, I swear they’re out there,
I swear, I swear they’re out there,
I swear, maybe angels, maybe angels
I played it a couple of times, then I stopped. Nice way to put the ke nignehore — “tempt the evil eye” in Yiddish — on your team.
That brought us to Saturday afternoon, Game Four, when Hozzie left the bathroom behind and the Angels left the Yankees in the dust. There was no evil eye this October. There was no Evil Empire anymore. The Yankees had been dethroned the previous November by the heroic Arizona Diamondbacks, but that was the World Series and it went seven games and there was a variety of excuses made on their behalf and if you come across their home games from that 2001 championship round on YES, you’d think they won the damn thing. They didn’t then and now, in October of 2002, there would be no mistaking the outcome, no revising the history in the making. Where aura and mystique were concerned, Anaheim represented the Angel of dynasty death.
Our new kitten, of course, represented spiritual rebirth. It was quite the yin and yang.
Hozzie entered a world in which our better Angels prevailed. What a welcome! David Wells, notoriously clutch October pitcher (notorious tends to be misused, but I mean notorious from my perspective), nursed a 2-1 Yankees lead into the fifth. Then the Angels earned their wings. They scored eight runs in that inning. Eight runs off Wells, Mendoza and Hernandez, the one they called El Duque, but I preferred the less cuddly Hernandez. They scored on a homer. They scored on singles. They scored on a double. They scored and scored and scored until it was 9-2.
The Yankees dribbled a couple more runs home and did make me slightly nervous in the ninth with some baserunners, but this was over in the fifth. And when Nick Johnson popped to David Eckstein, it was done. The Yankees were defeated.
The Yankees were dead. The Angels were our avenging saviors. No longer Maybe Angels, but Definitely Angels. They were The Team That Saved October (I wonder if Disney thought about developing that for a summer release).
The Yankees were history, and not the kind they brag on. October was alive. Now there would be a true October. In the National League, the Giants would face the Cardinals for the pennant. The Twins beat the A’s (chokers) and were the next opponent for Anaheim — Anaheim, City of Heroes as one e-mail I received right after Game Four called it.
My residual loyalty to the wonderful ex-met Rick Reed notwithstanding, there was really no choice to be made for me between his Twins and Hozzie’s Angels. I rooted for Rick his one start, but as soon as he was knocked out (in the sixth), I had no conflict. And as the Halos threw down with the Twinkies, I could sit back and appreciate the Angels as kind of a West Coast kindred spirit of the Mets.
They were born in the same expansion litter. They battled second-sister perceptions vis-à-vis insufferable neighbors. They were star-crossed, the Angels more so. At least we had won a couple of times. The Angels had bad luck of all sorts, on the field and off. They’d had guys die (Lyman Bostock) and kill themselves (Donnie Moore). Gene Autry, an owner who sang cowboy tunes and signed free agents, was always disappointed. His wife Jackie carried on in the dismayed tradition even after Disney bought the team. Their 1986 came close to colliding with ours but was stopped cold. It was after that post-season flop — an out away from a flag only to have the Red Sox, of all people, spook them — that Roger Angell (no relation) inducted them into the corps:
“It’s about time we old-franchise inheritors admitted the Angelvolk to the ranks of the true sufferers — the flagellants, the hay-in-the-hair believers, the sungazers, the Indians-worshippers, the Cubs coo-coos, the Twins-keepers, the Red Sox Calvinists: the fans.”
And 1986 was a high point, relatively speaking. Little was heard from the Angels after Dave Henderson did them in. The next time they pricked the seamhead consciousness was 1995 when they built an impressive lead in the American League West and commenced to blow it to the Seattle Mariners. The Mariners refused to lose. The Angels had no problem with the concept.
This was a team whose uniform restyled frequently, whose caps switched shades and fonts every couple of years, whose actual name didn’t (and still doesn’t) hold steady. They once aspired to represent all of California. Now they were Anaheim’s team, giving them corporate synergy, one supposed, with hockey’s Mighty Ducks. If you could still be an Angels fan after all that, you deserved a trophy.
The Twins didn’t make it too hard on the Angels in the pennant tier. After losing the first game in the wacky Metrodome, Anaheim swept four. The fifth and final game was 13-5. Eighteen hits for the Halos. Adam Kennedy, the No. 9 hitter, smacked three home runs.
We were looking at an all-California series, the Angels and the Giants. Not My Giants . My Giants moved away after 1957. I didn’t have even the pretense of a hard choice here, National League affiliation notwithstanding. I was in the minority of fans who truly admired Barry Bonds’ skills despite his pungent personality (pre-revelations, mind you) and he was on a postseason roll. I felt some vindication for him — like he needed it — in the way he was obliterating his October ghosts. But he wasn’t my cause. The Angels were.
In late June, when the Mets held all my baseball attention and the Angels were just another team whose game last night ended too late for its score to be included in this edition, I was mostly thinking about Casey. Everything was about Casey. Every third song I heard was about Casey. The first one I adopted in tribute to him was Norman Greenbaum’s 1970 kitschy smash “Spirit In The Sky”. That was Casey. Casey was my spirit in the sky all summer long.
Come Game One of the 2002 World Series at Edison International Field of Anaheim (they also keep changing the name of where they play), the home team trotted out to their foul line to a loop of the opening strains of a 32-year-old pop hit. It was “Spirit In The Sky”. They did it for Gene Autry and to tie in to that whole Angels thing. But that was Casey’s song! Casey…MY spirit in the sky! Casey…MY angel!
Now it all made sense to me. I had latched onto the Angels not just because they beat the Yankees. They were the only team that could have been en route to that year’s World Championship. It was the year I said goodbye to Casey, hello to Hozzie and How About My Angels?
The Giants never stood a chance. Yes, it went seven games, and yes, the Giants were ahead by five runs in the sixth game and were eight outs from their first world championship since moving to San Francisco, but they never stood a chance. Not with my cats past and present aligning against them. Not with the powers of that silly Anaheim Rally Monkey being reinforced 3,000 miles to the east by an array of unofficial rally monkeys that Stephanie rounded up from Pathmark. She found five different stuffed monkeys and placed them strategically around the TV.
Hozzie grabbed one and made it his first pet.
The Angels, if you’ve forgotten (that Series got terrible ratings), stormed back from down 5-0 in the seventh inning to win 6-5 in Game Six. One night later, John Lackey, Brendan Donnelly, Frankie Rodriguez and Troy Percival pitched them to the finish line in Game Seven.
Funny thing about Percival. Back in the spring after we had acquired Mo Vaughn from these very Angels (for Appier), there was a tabloid tussle between Mo and the reliever. I think Percival, who was a perennial leader among A.L. savers, had said something to the effect of we’re better off without Vaughn. It wasn’t really that harsh. Mo lashed out like a madman, going on about how he had “hardware” — the ’95 MVP award — and playoff appearances under his belt (among other weighty things). Out of loyalty to our new first baseman, I decided I disliked Troy Percival.
Now, on October 27, I was rooting like crazy for him and all those Angels Vaughn left behind. When Percival induced Kenny Lofton to fly to Darin Erstad for the Angels’ first world championship in the 41-year history of the franchise, I was as thrilled as anyone who’d barely given them a second thought a month earlier could be. But that’s what October’s for.
I’m not sure who Hozzie’s rooting for in this World Series. I’m sure he’ll let me know.