Wednesday, September 30, 2009

(AP Photo)

By David Saltzer - Columnist

After clinching a playoff berth for the 5th time in 6 years, the Angels celebrated. But, before they celebrated, they heard Mike Scioscia give some poignant words about their fallen teammate, Nick Adenhart. Scioscia told the team that the victory belonged as much to them as it did to Nick Adenhart.

While considered an ironic act by some, and in poor taste by a few, the team celebrated with Nick Adenhart. In the clubhouse, they sprayed his jersey with beer and champagne. And then, as they came out to the fans in the stadium, they ran en masse out to centerfield to touch Adenhart and remember him in an even more physical manner. They honored him as if he were there in person to share in the moment.

As a long-time Angels fan, watching the team run out to centerfield brought back an important aspect to being an Angels fan: the family connection of the team. We really haven’t seen that sentiment in Anaheim since the days when Gene Autry ran the team.

Growing up, it wasn’t always easy being an Angels fan. We didn’t have the storied history and traditions of the Dodgers. By and large we were the forgotten step-child of Southern California Baseball. But, what the Angels lacked in baseball tradition, they more than made up with a great owner and a family connection between all of the players, the owner, and the fans.

Unlike the Dodgers, the Angels’ players from the 70s and 80s acted like a team. We had Gene Autry who was a great owner for both the fans and the players. He created a positive environment for the players and a welcoming environment for the fans. I once talked to Mr. Autry about it and he told me that not only did he want the best athletes on his team, he wanted the best people on his team.

During the Autry era, the Angels were known for their charitable work. But, unlike most athletes at the time, they did their work in relative silence. They didn’t do these things to rehab their image as so many celebrities do today. They did it because it was the right thing to do.

In fact, in many cases, specific players made it abundantly clear that if anyone revealed their activity that they would actually stop performing the services as they believed that such publicity would detract from their efforts. As a recipient of many of those charitable acts, I deeply appreciated that the players were doing it because it was the right thing and because they cared—not because they wanted to use me for an ulterior purpose.

Additionally, it was very common to see the players and their families acting as one big Angels’ family. I used to sit over in what was known as the “players’ wives’” section and it was always amazing to see how the families all helped each other out. Under Mr. Autry, it was expected that the players and their families would be a part of the community and part of the team’s family. They would help the new players and minor leaguers find places to live and show them around the community. They helped minor leaguers, who often arrived with little more than a suitcase, get settled in. They treated each other as family. And then they got them all connected with some charitable activity to do. That was part of their Angels’ family connection.

In today’s era of free agency, it’s hard to imagine what it was like to be a fan of the team back then. It had a different feel. Sure, we had our free agent signings. But, once they got here, the players became part of our family. They all talked about wanting to win one for the Cowboy, and the fans all felt connected to the team. The Cowboy knew them and wanted them to succeed. He often spent time just talking and listening to the players.

Last night, watching the players run out to celebrate with Adenhart, newer fans got a chance to see what the Angels of yore were like. They played with heart and they celebrated as a team. They weren’t a collection of individuals and they didn’t leave anyone out. Like in the old days, the players included the owner in their celebration as well. And they didn’t forget their injured comrades—they brought out Scot Shields’ jersey too.

Arte Moreno has done a lot to bring the Angels family back together—he’s been a player’s owner just like Gene Autry. We as fans have been lucky to have him. Artie made the long overdue peace with Brian Downing and inducted him into the Angels’ Hall of Fame. He’s signed the players and made the stadium a fun and exciting place to be. And, he’s brought us a winning tradition.

Last night, seeing the Angels celebrate with Adenhart brought back a feeling that had been absent for many years. For one moment the team celebrated in the raw emotion and shared it with the fans. Once again, they were a family united to win it all.
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