Sunday, September 14, 2008

(AP Photo)

By David Saltzer - Columnist

There’s a certain amount of onomonopeia in the word “clinch”. It sounds like a perfection combination of being a “cinch” to do, and something that we could “clench” from the get-go.

We all know that wasn’t the case, with the key injuries to Escobar, Lackey, Figgins, Kendrick, and Napoli (just to name a few). And we all remember that many of the pundits didn’t pick us to win the division. According the talking-heads, the Mariners were supposed to be the class of the division. We were supposed to be happy with a valiant fight for a Wild Card spot.

But, there we were on Wednesday celebrating after we clinched our 4th AL West title in 5 years. We were the first team to clinch and did it at home. We did it against the Yankees, which made it all the more special.

As I watched the team celebrating on the field, I realized that winning the division this year meant something extra special to me as a fan. Winning the AL West this year fundamentally changed the way I viewed the team’s history as a franchise.

I was born in 1972, and have been a life-long Angels fan. I remember watching the team win its first AL West title and listening to the older fans explain how winning changed everything. For them, winning the first title meant the team had a history—a time before a title, and a time after it.

I remember watching the team win its second AL West title in 1982. Again, I remember listening to the older fans explain how the second title in 3 years changed everything. For them, winning a second title meant that the team had a chance at being a dynasty. The Cowboy had brought in the free agents to do a job, and it looked like they could do it fairly easily.

I remember 1986, like it was yesterday. I celebrated when we won our 3rd AL West title. At age 14, I was old enough to know that our third title was going to change everything. The team in 1986 was magical. It had it all. They were the comeback kids. There was no deficit that they couldn’t surmount. There was no team that scared them. They were the team that was going to win it all. I was there in the stands ready to storm the field when the fateful pitch was thrown.

From 1987-2001, there were some highs, but mostly, there were lows. There were no more banners to be flown, there were no more major free agents to be signed. Cost efficiency became the operational goal, and winning took a back seat. We nearly drifted into contraction.

As the years wore on, the joy of 1986 faded. Each year it seemed like we would never recapture the glory and potential that we had in 1986. Each year, I wished a little bit more that it the pitch had been called strike 3 instead of a being hit as a homerun. Each year I wondered how much more different things would be had we won it all that year. For fourteen seasons, it seemed that 1986 was the peak of our accomplishments, and each season took us further and further away from the top.

When 2002 rolled around, I honestly did not believe that we had a chance to win it all. Our payroll paled in comparison to the Yankees. Our pitchers were good, but not the aces of other organization, and our hitters were solid, but not the sluggers that we faced on a nightly basis.

I remember the prayer I said at the start of each round in the post season: “Please G-d, let us win at least 1 game in this round to prove that we belong here.” As long as we weren’t swept, I told myself that I should be happy.

Winning the World Series in 2002 changed everything for the Angels. We became a team with a national history. Our attendance immediately shot up by over 700,000 fans, and crossed the 3 million mark for the first time. All of a sudden, we changed from being an invisible team with almost no fans into a sea of red. Whereas before the World Series you might occasionally see an Angels cap around Orange County, after winning the World Series, you saw red everywhere.

So then, what is so special about winning the AL West in 2008? Why should fans revel in 2008’s success so far? Shouldn’t we wait to see if we win the World Series before declaring 2008 a major success for the organization?

In short, winning the AL West in 2008 proves to the fans is that 2002 was not the Mt. Everest of our history—it was the fulcrum upon which our organization balances. Consider this: In the 41 years prior to 2002, we won 3 Division titles; in the 6 years since 2002, we’ve won 4. In the 41 years prior to 2002, we had 1 AL MVP and 1 Cy Young pitcher; in the 6 years, we’ve had Vlad and Bartolo. In the 41 years prior to 2002, we watched Nolan Ryan set the ML record for strikeouts; in the 6 years since 2002, we watched K-Rod break the ML record for saves.

At this point, it’s clear to say that we’ve set as many team and individual records in the 6 years since 2002 as we did in the entire 41 years prior to 2002. And, at this point, it’s clear to say that our glory is not behind us. Our glory is as much now and in the future as it is in the past. Unlike the 1979-1986 stretch that seemed like the golden years for so long, our future is still bright. No longer do we have to hope to spend some time playing in October; we now expect that we will be.

I’m now the proud father of 3 wonderful sons. What 2008 means to me is that my sons will grow up with an entirely different Angels’ history than I had. My sons will never have to pray to “win just 1 game to prove we belong here.” With the way we’ve played this year, we are the class of the majors. With the way our organization is run, we will remain so for years to come.

This truly is a good time to be an Angels fan. And that is why winning the AL West in 2008 is special.
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