Thursday, February 14, 2008

Thomas Crow - Contributor

A reasonable argument can be made that 2005 was the second-best season in Angels history. The team won 95 regular season games and again defeated the favored New York Yankees in the American League Division Series. They might just have made it back to the World Series, too, if not for a now infamous umpiring call that certainly won’t be referenced anywhere else on this list.

The team formerly known as the Anaheim Angels was the Los Angeles Angels again. (Well, almost.) Fitting that in order to win this standout September game against the Chicago White Sox, Vladimir Guerrero and the Angels had to steal a scene straight out of Hollywood.

The play brings immediate comparisons to the climax of the 1989 film “Major League.” In the film, the perennially lousy Cleveland Indians, comprised of a bunch of washouts and no-names, somehow forces a one-game playoff against the division rival Yankees (Remember when the Indians and Yankees were in the same division?) for the AL East pennant. The ending features bad-kneed catcher Jake Taylor calling his shot before laying down a bunt on which speedster Willie Mays Hayes scores from second base to send the Indians to the playoffs.

In the Angels version, the team was clinging to the slimmest one-game lead over Oakland and locked up in an extra-innings donnybrook with the White Sox. In the 11th inning, the White Sox appeared poised to win the game, but Juan Rivera nailed Aaron Rowand at the plate to preserve the 5-5 tie.

Leading off the 12th, Guerrero scorched an 0-1 pitch from Dustin Hermanson to deep center field. Believing he’d just given the Angels the lead with one swing, Guerrero was slow out of the box and barely got into second ahead of the tag once he realized the ball had remained in the park. Frustrated at himself for his mental blunder, Guerrero seemed determined to score by any means necessary.

Up stepped catcher Bengie Molina to lay down a sacrifice bunt and move Guerrero to third. (Molina did not call his shot and, sadly, unlike Taylor he didn’t get the girl, either.) Molina bunted to third baseman Geoff Blum, who threw to first where Tad Iguchi was covering. Guerrero, who will never be confused with a great baserunner, charged straight through third base coach Ron Roenicke’s stop sign and galloped, as only Vlad can, toward the plate.

“I never got to the yes part,” Roenicke said. “I was ‘No, no, no.’ I didn’t hold my hands up but I said ‘no’ a couple of times. When his mind was made up to go, he got going in a hurry.”

Iguchi’s throw home got there well ahead of Guerrero, but was offline, leaving catcher A.J. Pierzysnski (Booo!) out of position. Guerrero awkwardly shifted his momentum to avoid Pierzynski’s tag and fell down with his hand landing on home plate to score the go-ahead run. Stunned by the play, Angels broadcaster Steve Physioc instinctively called Guerrero out before seeing that home plate umpire Ron Kulpa had indicated safe.

“You look back at the last 150 years of baseball and you can probably count on one hand how many times that play has worked,” Blum said. “So you can call it luck, you can call it savvy, you can call it whatever you want.”

The Angels held on to win the game, 6-5, with Frankie Rodriguez striking out the side in the bottom of the inning.

All of his home runs and clutch hits not withstanding, this play captures so much of Guerrero’s almost certain Hall of Fame career in a nutshell. Even blessed with such immense talent, he still plays the game how most of us imagine we would: with joy, passion and occasional recklessness that remind us why we love the game so much.
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