By Geoff Bilau, Angelswin.com Senior Editor
“The Angels one out away from their first championship ever. Porter at the plate, he waits. The pitch from Frank … swing and a ground ball hit to Carew. He bobbles it, recovers, throws to Tanana … IN TIME! The 19-year wait is over, they’ve done it: The Angels are the champions of the West!”
In light of all the recent success the Angels have enjoyed this decade — a World Championship and division titles in three of the past four seasons — it’s sometimes easy to forget just how difficult a struggle it was for the franchise to win its first.
But, oh, did they ever struggle; not only through losing seasons — and there were plenty of those, 13 of the first 17 to be exact — but also debilitating injuries and clubhouse unrest. The Angels even suffered the tragedy of not one, but two players’ deaths during their first two heartbreaking decades. In 18 previous seasons, they’d gone through eight managers, four general managers and played in three different home parks.
But finally, in 1979, with a rallying cry of “Yes We Can!” the Angels buried their demons (well, some of them anyway) and on Sept. 25, behind a dominant complete game by Frank Tanana, they won the American League West in front of 40,631 jubilant fans at Anaheim Stadium.
And true to fashion for this franchise, it still didn’t come easily: Nolan Ryan, Rod Carew and Willie Aikens each missed significant time with injuries and Tanana was limited to 17 starts. But manager Jim Fregosi, hired in the middle of the 1978 season, days after retiring as a player, held it all together.
“We’ve been ready for it for an awfully long time around here and I’m just thrilled to death to be part of it,” said Fregosi, who spent 13 of the team’s first 19 seasons in an Angels uniform. “These players have been absolutely fantastic all season. They’ve gone out under really some tough situations, some tough conditions, they’ve battled all year long and I just couldn’t be prouder of them.”
Great offensive seasons from Don Baylor, later named the AL MVP, Bobby Grich, Dan Ford and Brian Downing, along with a solid season from Ryan and the emergence of Dave Frost carried the Angels to the title, which was a watershed moment for the Angels franchise despite the fact the team would go on to lose the ALCS, 3-1, to the Orioles.
"The biggest thing we had to overcome was that we had never won a division," Fregosi said. "No matter how good the talent was, there seemed to be a black cloud hanging over the team — injuries, people getting hurt. Overcoming that was special to me. Once a team has won, the team knows it could do it."
It would be another 23 years before the Angels would win it all, but in 1979 they took that first, all-important step.