Purgatory Online

Wednesday, October 30, 2002

"What'd you pay for your tickets?" was a popular question. It wasn't delivered in a nosy, how-much-can-you-afford kind of way, but with a wry, morbid curiosity: how much did the bastards get you for? Everyone who asked knew that we who had waited all this time were not about to let a small thing like finances or an economic slowdown stop us from seeing the Angels in the World Series; whatever we had on us, we would pay, and commisserate quietly together about scalpers later. And so when I'd answer, modestly, "face," their expressions would be of satisfaction that someone, at least, had gamed the ticket brokers out of a few bills. It wasn't until I told them that I'd actually gotten through to Ticketmaster to obtain my ticket that their faces took on looks of disbelief. "Really?" they'd say. "Wow. You're the only one I know."

I met Irene in Albuquerque. Irene's late husband, Don, had covered the Angels for thirty years for a newspaper in Long Beach, and now she lives about ten minutes from the stadium. On the ride to Phoenix she told me about meeting Gene Autry, Bo Belinsky, Dean Chance, and others of the early teams. She and her family had been to Games 1 and 2, as well as games from the ALDS and ALCS, but couldn't scare up four together for Game 7, and decided to watch it together in front of the TV instead of separately at the ballpark. Irene had seen hundreds of Angels games, but nothing like what had been happening for the last few weeks. "It's so loud," she said. "And everyone is wearing red!" The last time she was there, the line to get into the team store - where a jersey costs $80, mind you - was over three hours long.

In line to check in for the Phoenix to Orange County leg of the trip, I met a tall, athletic guy, maybe 25 years old, who had just run from another gate to catch this flight. He turned out to be Wes, a buddy of John Lackey's who had played with him in Boise, short-season ball, 1999. Lack had called him the night before, he said, in Minnesota, and told him to get to Anaheim ASAP--his old buddy had been tapped to pitch Game 7 of the World Series. Later, after the flight landed, we split a cab to the ballpark, and he told me that he and Lackey had both been starting pitchers in Boise--they would have been about 21 then--and would go out after their starts to eat pizza, drink beer, and fantasize about making it to the Series together. I checked out his stats after I got home--it seemed impolite to ask at the time--and damned if he didn't have a great year for Boise, good enough to get promoted a couple of times through the advanced-A California League and into Anaheim's Double-A affiliate in Arkansas. But then, he said, "a couple of surgeries later..." And he shrugged, because that's baseball. He and his reconstructed physique spent this past summer in the independent Northern League, playing for the St. Paul Saints, but for now, by God, he was going to the World Series, just like his friend promised.

I got to the stadium at 2:00, half an hour before the gates were due to open and two and a half hours before the game started. The parking lot was half full. A van from one of the local radio stations had attracted a crowd; interns were chucking free red T-shirts out of the open back doors. California law allows for ticket scalping, but prohibits it on the grounds of the stadium, so there were only a few guys wandering around with thousand-yard stares and carefully modulated voices, asking if anyone had an extra ticket. No one did.

The gates opened just after 2:30. Security was surprisingly light - purses and packages were inspected cursorily, but since I had neither I went through an "express gate." In the five minutes it took me to find the main souvenir store inside the stadium, it had already filled and shoppers were being allowed access only when others were exiting. The line wrapped around the side of the building. Since I never have to wait to get onto the store's web site, I moved on.

One bratwurst later, I was making a circuit of the stadium. Edison Field is nice - not spectacular, like Kaufmann Stadium in Kansas City, or stuffed with amusements, like Minute Maid in Houston, but much better than, say, the Metrodome or old Fulton County Stadium. It looks like what it is: a multipurpose stadium that's been renovated to make it baseball-only, with some pre-fab rocks and fountains placed past the left-center field wall to give it some character. In the outfield concourse, there are the ubiquitous "see how fast you can throw the ball" and "see how far you can hit the (virtual) ball" machines, only no one was playing them, because how many kids can afford $150 a ticket?

On the way to my seat, I looked for a beer and was somewhat disappointed to find nothing in the way of stuff from local breweries. Fortunately, I spotted the Heineken logo on a nearby cart. That'll do in a pinch, I though. Heineken's fine. Heineken's drinkable. Heineken's...nine dollars?

Nothing like a cold Budweiser at the ball game.

My seat turned out to be in the second deck, which is the same height the luxury boxes have. My section had an "attendant," who took food orders and entered them into an electronic handheld device, where the fans' doganacokes were transmitted to the ether, displayed on a screen in a nearby concession stand, and delivered by runners. Unfortunately, I was also as far from the plate as it's possible to get without actually being in the outfield - home plate, the left field foul pole, and I lined up straight. But it was in the stadium.

I read from my offical World Series program ($10) for a while, and every time I looked up it seemed like someone had turned on another tap. The stadium was 5% full. I read the Commissioner's welcome message. The stadium was 15% full. I checked out the 2002 American League highlights. The stadium was 50% full. Meanwhile, banner-pulling airplanes filled the sky, to the point that I suspected some air traffic controller was pulling special duty from a box on the roof. I counted nine airplanes, two helicopers, and the blimp in the sky at the same time, not counting what I couldn't see behind me.

To help pass the time, I inflated my official-issue World Series ThunderStix. They were giving these things out free at the gates - essentially long, oblate balloons you inflate with straws, ThunderStix, when banged together, make a noise like a bucket of turkey guts dropped onto a plastic sheet from five stories up. Prior to showing up at the ballpark, my biggest concern about ThunderStix was that they'd block my view of the game, but now it was clear that I was going to be in serious danger of hearing loss comparable to someone who's stood underneath a 747 during takeoff or been to a Blue Oyster Cult concert.

I was sitting on the aisle, and eventually my neighors arrived - a father and his son, maybe ten years old. The boy had just come from watching batting practice up close, and had gotten some autographs on a ball he'd brought. "I got Adam Kennedy, Benji Gil, and Tim Salmon, this time," he said. This time. It wasn't a big deal, getting these guys to sign a baseball. It's what baseball players do, right?

Finally, the festivities got rolling. Melissa Etheridge sang the National Anthem. The obligatory big-game flyby of jets happened. And then, the weirdest thing happened: a baseball game started.

It sounds stupid, but one of the strangest things about the whole trip was how normal the game itself was. We tend to think of Game 7 of the World Series as the biggest possible moment in sports (stop emailing me, World Cup fans, I don't care). The crowds are larger and louder, the culmination of thousands of games played during the season turns on a few inches here or there. Accomplishments in that environment are mythic. For all that, however, it's still just a baseball game. Homers aren't worth 6 runs, you still get one out for three strikes, nobody gains the power of flight. Nothing happened in Game 7 that you would think twice about if you saw it in June. Sure, Darin Erstad made a terrific catch on a sinking line drive to rob David Bell of a leadoff hit in the top of the 5th, but Darin Erstad makes those plays all the time. The juxtaposition of these perfectly ordinary plays with the never-before-seen (in Anaheim) Game 7 atmosphere made things surreal.

Don't, however, think that just because the game itself was normal it wasn't a great game to watch. Aside from the fans and the fanfare, the Giants and Angels played a terrific, tense game that came down to the last batter. I knew from talking to Lackey's minor-league buddy that he had gone to Scioscia and asked for the ball, a sign that he had the confidence and wouldn't be rattled early. Hernandez had looked bad in game 3, and looked bad in the first inning, too, and the crowd was on its feet as he walked two to put David Eckstein in scoring position with one out. But then Eckstein was doubled off second on Anderson's liner to center, and suddenly I knew what "taking the crowd out of the game" meant.

Bonds led off the second, and suddenly no one was making noise. The entire crowd was braced for another crushed ball, and I remember thinking only that Lackey had done a good job to make sure Bonds didn't come up with men on base. But then he lined out, and it was like a call from the governor at 11:59. In his subsequent at-bats, Bonds would single, pop up, and walk, and each time he reached the plate his mystique was diminished a little more. When he drew a walk in the eighth inning, with two out and nobody on, the crowd cheered wildly: with four outs left to get and a three-run lead, Barry Bonds had been eliminated as a factor.

Hernandez was terrible. Even from my seat, I could tell he was nervous, not hitting his spots. I kept expecting Baker to start the bullpen, but even after giving up back-to-back hits to Eckstein and Erstad to start the third, all was quiet down there. When Hernandez hit Salmon to load the bases, it was obvious that good things were about to happen for the Angels.

Anderson's bases-clearing double chased Hernandez (he was actually left in for one more batter, to intentially walk Troy Glaus), and then the game really got good. On the brink of being blown out, Chad Zerbe got the Giants out of the two-on, no-out jam and kept them in the game. I've read a lot of stories by people who called Game 7 "anticlimactic" because the winning runs were scored in the third and there wasn't the dramatic comeback win featured in Game 6. Nobody in that stadium, however, thought that the game was anticlimactic; I suspect that every single one of the 40,000+ fans in attendance would have been surprised to learn that Anderson's double in the third would score the last runs of the ball game. With six innings of Bonds, Kent, Sanders, et al coming up, I looked on the Angels' failure to score Anderson from second as a potentially devastating loss.

In fact, that would be pretty much it for the Anaheim offense. Aside from a double by Molina in the 6th, the Giants' relief pitching shut down the Angels' bats. Kirk Rueter, in particular, pitched four scoreless innings, and I'll be damned if I can figure out how. One of the really nice features of Edison Field is that they have the pitcher's total pitch count, balls, and strikes posted on the scoreboard at all times, and Rueter was throwing very nearly as many balls as strikes. Ordinarily, that's not such a good sign, but in this case he was getting the Angels to chase balls out of the strike zone, or look for balls away when he was coming in, or something. I haven't had a chance to watch the videotape from those innings yet, but for four innings it frustrated the hell out of me.

Meanwhile, Lackey was starting to wobble. In the fifth, he looked like he was struggling, throwing a lot of balls down and away, and it looked like it was only a matter of time before he started walking guys, which would force him to throw over the plate more, which would let the Giants start hitting the ball. Erstad saved his bacon with his catch to lead off the inning, though, and Lackey struck out Pedro Feliz (who may be the worst hitter ever to DH in a World Series game). He walked Lofton, and the bullpen was up - I could see Donnelly and Schoeneweis getting ready - but then Aurilia flied out to end the inning, and that was it for Lackey.

Donnelly kept us on the edge of our seats in the 6th and 7th. According to the game log, the 6th looked like the bigger threat, what with Snow on second and Santiago on third with two outs, but in all honesty when Baker pinch hit Goodwin for Sanders it was like that call from the governor again. Goodwin dutifully struck out.

It was the one-two-three seventh that was really the adventure. Bell led off by hitting a 2-2 pitch into deep left and I was positive it was gone, but Anderson, backed up to the wall, nonchalantly settled under it for the out. Feliz again struck out, and then Lofton hit another bomb - but again, it was just shy of home run power, backing Salmon up to the right-field wall. The woman in the seat in front of me turned around. "I hate that Donnelly," she said.

During the Angels' half of the seventh, I watch Frankie Rodriguez--"K-Rod," they call him in Anaheim--warm up. My seat looked right down on the bullpen, so I had seen Lackey, Donnelly, Schoeneweis, and now Rodriguez warm up. While the other three had looked like they were working the kinks out, however, Rodriguez looked not just ready to go, but ready to dominate. The ball had such incredible speed and movement on it that it looked like someone had given him a golf ball to throw. I knew Bonds was due up third in the eighth, but, looking at Rodriguez warm up, I didn't think there was any way anyone was going to be on base when he did.

I was right. Rodriguez is 20 (or so he says, anyway), and maybe that's just too young to know you're supposed to lose control in such situations. But K-Rod gave Aurilia and Kent no chance. Aurilia went down on three pitches, Kent on four.

I HAVE watched the videotape of this inning, and can say that Rodriguez certainly looked like he was pitching to Bonds - just not giving him anything to hit. I don't think he was trying to pitch around Bonds, exactly, but gave him pitches that were just bad enough to get him out if he swung. Bonds has a preternatural eye at the plate, though, and walked, which no one in the stadium thought was a bad thing. And then, faced with someone who wasn't Barry Bonds, Rodriguez went right after Santiago and struck him out on four pitches.

It's hard to overestimate the importance of a good closer to a baseball fan's psyche, and Troy Percival is a terrific closer. He came to the Angels in 1995, served as Lee Smith's setup man, and has been one of the best relief pitchers in baseball ever since. But Lord God he does like to make things interesting, and this especially is where I don't understand why anyone thought the game was anticlimactic: it came down to a two-on, two-out at-bat, Troy Percival vs. Kenny Lofton. Lofton is not some banjo-hitting callup; he bats leadoff and hit 11 home runs this year.

When he connected with the first pitch, it took about two seconds to realize that it was going to stay in the park, and it wasn't until that moment that I really believed that the Angels were going to win the World Series. Throughout the eighth and ninth, knowing that Rodriguez and Percival were what they were, I was half-expecting a terrorist attack, or asteroid, or some damn thing. "The Angels win the World Series" seemed like such an improbable thing; even when the organization spent decades trying with increasing desperation to "win one for the cowboy," "one" referred to an American League pennant, not the World Series. But when I saw that ball was going to come down, and saw Erstad waving his arms, I had just one thought left:

Please, God, don't let Ochoa go for it too.

A second later, Ochoa had pulled up and was watching Erstad make the Angels World Champs. I needed about six pairs of eyes, then. I wanted to see Erstad and Ochoa sprint in from the outfield, Molina leap into Percival's arms, Spiezio and Glaus rush in from the corners, Anderson break into his first grin of the season, and every section of the stadium go bananas.

They did a remarkable job setting up the stage on the field for the presentation of the trophies; I heard that they had actually set everything up in the Giants' clubhouse the night before when it looked like they were going to win, and just as quickly tore it down when they didn't. Within ten minutes, Jeanne Zelasko was introducing Bud Selig, who was roundly booed, and Michael Eisner, who was booed a little less, and then Scioscia was hoisting the trophy over his head and the place just exploded.

I left about an hour later, after watching Salmon take a victory lap with the trophy, Glaus receive his MVP award, and Ben Weber emerge from the dugout to spray champagne on the fans who had stayed to watch a seemingly endless procession of interviews with David Eckstein on the field. My hotel was about a mile and a half away, and I don't think I went twenty feet at any given time without being honked at by somebody who had spotted my cap and red shirt.

The next morning, I made the Orange County-Phoenix-El Paso-Dallas return home. I left Orange County at 6:45 a.m., and my plane landed in Dallas at 3:20 p.m. But I have no idea when I'll come back to Earth.