SPORTS

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October 15, 2002

Angels refuse to disappear

Here they are. These are your titans casting a long shadow over the silver World Series trophy. These are your odds-on favorites, your smart-money Vegas option. These are your Anaheim Angels.

It's true that, as of last week, I was writing you about a catalogue of Cinderella stories and a playoffs—at long last—that had no strong favorite. Last week is over. There are times, especially, it seems, during the playoffs, when sports writers have to admit that they were wrong. The Anaheim Angels are a favorite, and have been a favorite ever since game two or so of their series with the Yankees.

Let me rehash things a bit. The Angels gave away the first playoff game they had played since, well, since 1986. This, like everything else the Angels have done all season, has been forgotten. Game one had shades of the folkloric Yankee magic; Bernie Williams plating the deciding runs with his late-inning Bronx bomber home run. But the Angels were the way they seem to have been all season: completely unfazed. They won the following three games with a series of businesslike comebacks, which, as far as I can tell, amounted to nothing less than beating the Yankees at their own game. Their eight-run outburst in the fifth inning of deciding game four was a thick layer of icing on their Angel-food cake.

While we have been raving about the gritty Giants, the storybook Twins, and the bereaved Cardinals, the Angels have been doing the same thing, week in, week out, all season long—winning lots and lots and lots of games. They were 51-35 at the All-Star break, 99-63 at the season's end, and now they are 7-2 in the playoffs. We missed this, because the A's won 20 games in a row, because the Braves were winning at a .700 clip for a period of time on the order of a month, and because the Yankees were putting away the Red Sox. There was never any time to notice the Angels, who were rattling off one below-the-fold victory after another.

Well, time has run out on ignoring the Angels. There aren't enough teams left to distract everyone. Basketball hasn't started yet. The press can only ignore the Angels on Sunday and Monday mornings these days, which means they are getting five-day-a-week coverage.

That's considerable, it should be said, but in any case it pales in comparison to the coverage given to every one of the (non-Angels) teams receiving mention in this article. Between the various off-field distractions and the general ignorance of the presence of baseball in Anaheim, CA, we missed the Angels.

But that does not mean, in any way, that this team is not extremely, extremely good. Their 99-63 regular season record is better, for instance, than the records of all but one of the five Yankees teams that have been painting the World Series with pinstripes since 1996. It is better than the records of the 1990 world champion Reds, the 1997 world champion Marlins, the 1992-1993 back-to-back world champion Blue Jays, the 1995 world champion Braves, and the 1991 world champion Twins. Put in much clearer, more succinct words, the Angels' 99-63 regular season record makes them, by one measure at least, a better team than every world champion since 1990 except the Yankees team that famously won 114 games. The Angels are a very good baseball team.

Credit Mike Scioscia. Credit him with as much frequency and sincerity as you can. Mike Scioscia has done everything for this team, which, under another coach, might not have survived the extraordinarily competitive American League West. Jerry Manuel might have led this same team to 84 wins.

It's not clear exactly what Scioscia did, whether he just "knows what to say to players" behind the scenes, or whether his ability to read tiring pitchers was exceptional, or what. Former catchers (and Scioscia was a good one) are reputed to make good managers on account of their superior knowledge of baseball situations; maybe he knows when to bunt and when to hit-and-run on account of having been a catcher. But, then, Tony Peña was a quality catcher, and you don't see the Kansas City Royals dispatching the Yankees and Twins in consecutive series. There is clearly something intangible going on here.

Most teams don't get three home-run outings from their ninth hitters, and most don't get consistent starting pitching from John Lackey. This is uncommon. These performances are caused by good coaching. I couldn't tell you how Scioscia does what he does, or I would change fields, but whatever it is, it works.

The Giants have been overachieving, and one never knows what to expect when it comes to overachievers, but there is plenty of good reason to support the Angels. When the World Series hype gets going and the phone calls start coming in to Las Vegas, you can be sure that the consensus will be clear: the Angels are the one and only favorite to win the championship.