Sunday, May 3, 2009

Jarrod Washburn sprained his shoulder trying to avoid a collision in a spring drill in 2003.

By Coral Marshall - Contributor

Everyone remembers the 2002 Angels, how could we not, history was finally made as the small franchise from 1961 that could reached the height of baseball (dare I say sports) destiny and brought home the trophy that had eluded players and fans for 41 years. The team chemistry was great. The guys were fun to watch (Spiezio to Eckstein to Kennedy made you want to believe you were watching the next Tinker to Evers to Chance). And who better to do it than those who were home grown: Salmon, Glaus, Erstad, Percival, Anderson. And then there was the rookie phenom in game 7. Who could forget K-Rod? This was exciting not just for Southern Californians, but for baseball fans as a whole, and 2003 had so much promise as a result.

And then 2003 came. And it was a true test of fandom. Sure, a lot of the names stayed the same- for a while. Until injuries plagued the team. It was hard going from a 99 win, wild-card season, to 77. But even then the club broke the 3 million mark in attendance for the first time in their history. The fans had had a taste of success, and liked it. In hindsight it wasn't just the 22 win difference that made the season hard, but the constant reminder that this wasn't the same team as evident by the team allowing 7 more runs than it scored.

But how could that be helped? Guys got injured. Guys got traded. And Vladimir Guerrero was still a force all the way up in Canada, something you heard about but rarely had the opportunity to see. And on the last day of the season Spiezio stood on the field as the lone representative of what was supposed to be our everyday team from the on set of the 2003 season.

But as dismal as that 2003 team was, it was impossible not to love them. They played with heart. They went all out (were the injuries not evidence enough of this?). And regardless of ending up third in the American League West, these guys had brought home the gold just the year before, and though they had lost their Cinderella-esque appeal, they were lovable. After all, who could help but fall in love with Jeff DaVanon, a switch hitter whose passion for the game and all out style of play embodied what the Angels preach. Then there was Robb Quinlan, who made his major league debut that year, and has become an integral part of the Angels' organization, though he doesn't play everyday he is a solid first baseman, third baseman, and outfielder who is willing to fill in when the team needs him- a true testament to his loyalties. And its true Lackey and Jarrod Washburn faltered (going 10-16 and 10-15 respectively), but fans couldn't stop watching. And the relief pitching, when they were healthy, Troy Percival, Scot Shields, K-Rod, Ben Weber, and Brendan Donnelly were not only entirely dominating, but easily the most fun bullpen in baseball to watch- the leg kicks, the glasses, and the passion were undeniable and unforgettable.

But, as mentioned above, the team wasn't healthy all season. Erstad played in only 67 games. Troy Glaus in only 91. In fact the only players to top 150 games played that season were Garret Anderson and Scott Spiezio. And so the super subs stepped up to the plate, literally and figuratively. Shawn Wooten played in 98 games as a utility player, and accumulated a .653 OPS (On Base Plus Slugging). Chone Figgins got his first taste of being a quasi-regular and hit .296 in 240 at bats. Who could forget Eric Owens, affectionately called EO, who managed to get in 111 games in the outfield. And that is just the start. The point being, however, that even on a team without their everyday players the Angels produced a pure game - a game the fans couldn't help but love because the guys playing loved the game, and played that signature style small ball the best way they knew how.

So now, 6 years removed from that fateful 2003 season, at a casual glance the only things the Angels of past and present seem to have in common are Scot Shields, Chone Figgins, Robb Quinlan, (currently disabled) John Lackey, and the skipper, the general manager isn't even the same. There isn't a single starting position player left. And yet, it is hard not to make comparisons when looking at the standings, when the Angels are (yet again) in third place in the American League West, and looking at the lengthy disabled list- including Big Bad Vlad.

But perhaps the easiest comparison of the two teams is that you have to love them, and not just because they are the home team, but because the home team has some great stories, despite not winning tons of games.

Finally, Figgins is getting the everyday play he deserves. He has gone from playing in just under half the games in the season as he did in 2003 to being the everyday third baseman. While he may not provide the power at the corner that everyone would love to ascribe to a third basemen, he is fun to watch and he is the first runner since Ricky Henderson (I went there) to steal bases with such grace.

Howie Kendrick. Injury free (::knock on wood::) and finally showing that he not only has the potential to hit for power, in just 70 at bats he has 3 home runs, not too shabby for a second baseman (we never did say the guy was the next Jeff Kent).

And then there are the guys who are finally getting to show us what they are made of. Not resigning Teixeira in the postseason was a heartbreaker (almost as heartbreaking as letting Kotchman go in order to sign him), but now K-Mo steps up to the plate, and this long awaited prospect who had only played in 127 major league games before this season has the opportunity to show he can fill the shoes of Kotchman and Teixeira before him.

Even still there are the guys who haven't come up through the system, but are fan favorites regardless: Hunter and Abreu. It is doubtful that many fans anticipated Abreu stealing so many bases, his highest single season total came with the Phillies in 2004 when he reached 40 in 159 games, and yet in only 20 games this season he has already snagged 9. Its interesting to see a 13 year veteran playing an entirely different type of baseball (Scioscia's small ball) and excelling. And one can't help but love Torii, especially with 8 home runs already. He has proven to be a leader, and is truly stepping up to the plate amongst so many injuries.

Perhaps even more impressively there is Matthews who stormed out of spring training but has been getting "it" done when it matters most. Though he may be playing fourth fiddle to Juan Rivera, Hunter, and Abreu, he has finally accepted this role with grace. And to be honest Angels' fans don't easily forget the great things players have done, and his first leaping play- jumping into the centerfield wall when he was first signed back in 2007- is still somewhere in the back of fans minds. Still he has been solid of late, especially from the left side of the plate.

Behind the plate Mike Napoli and Jeff Mathis look stellar, and what's more they seem to be coming into their own during at bats. Especially Napoli who has already hit 4 homers this season. and is near the top in the AL in slugging percentage and OPS. Perhaps most importantly though, he knows how to calm the Angels' pitchers down - which will be his greatest asset once John Lackey & Ervin Santana come back from the disabled list.

While the big names are always fun to watch, fans can't help but root for Maicer Izturis, Juan Rivera and Brandon Wood. It is simply fun to watch guys like Wood perform at the major league level on (what will likely be) a more regular basis than ever before, because he has been so highly touted in the minor league system.

Though there have been countless bullpen implosions, the pitching staff is doing everything it can to stay cohesive after losing so many star pitchers- Lackey, Santana, and Escobar to start on the DL, K-Rod to free agency, Moseley on the DL, and most tragically of all, the young and promising talent of Nick Adenhart. Yet guys like Darren Oliver and Shane Loux have taken their new roles on the team in stride and while they may not have the big names that traditionally draw in the crowds they are more than getting the job done which is what is truly important. And just like Wood, seeing Anthony Ortega on the mound in New Yankee Stadium is fun: minor league pitcher of the year turns major league success? Stories like that write themselves.

Let's not forget that Vladdy is running the bases and on his way back soon.

So while the team may be injured, they are lovable and have as much hope or more than those '03 Angels. And what a great story it will be, almost a reversal of that year, when the Angels regain their guys in the middle of the season and come back triumphantly, because (remember) its still early! there are still 143 games left this season and they only need 68 more wins to out do the '03 team.
Love to hear what you think!


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