Monday, September 23, 2013

By Joe Haakenson, Contributor - 

SEPT. 23, 2002

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Don't talk to the Angels about being ``close.''

``Close'' was coming one strike from reaching the World Series, as the Angels did in 1986 before Boston's Dave Henderson hit the infamous home run off Donnie Moore in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series.

The Angels don't consider themselves close to a World Series appearance this season, not with the New York Yankees, their probable Division Series opponent standing in the way. Not yet.

But as has been their mantra all season, the Angels take things one step at a time. And the first step is getting to the playoffs. That might not be a big deal to a team like the Yankees or the Atlanta Braves, but it is to the Angels.

Since losing that 1986 series to the Boston Red Sox, the Angels have had not been to the playoffs. But with one more win, one measly win, the Angels will have taken that first step and guaranteed themselves a spot as the A.L. wild-card team.

Between 1986 and now, the Angels have been close. In 1989 they won 91 games but lost out to the eventual World Series champion Oakland A's. In 1997 and '98, they led the division as late as September before faltering in the final weeks of the season.

And who can forget 1995? That year, the Angels led the West by 11 games on Aug. 9. What some forget is that it was the Texas Rangers who trailed by 11 games. The Seattle Mariners, who eventually caught the Angels and forced a one-game playoff, trailed by 13 games on Aug. 9.

These current Angels have players who experienced that, for better and for worse. Tim Salmon, Troy Percival, Garret Anderson and Orlando Palmeiro spent time on that 1995 team. It had plenty of offense, but not the balance this year's Angels have.

The Angels lead the league in hitting, are second in ERA and second in fielding percentage. The lineup has the big hitters in Anderson and Troy Glaus, but rely more on a lineup that has an ability to do the little things, make things easier for the next batter.

``There aren't egos on this team,'' said Angels general manager Bill Stoneman. ``There's a focus on this team without anybody enjoying standing out from the crowd. But what a lot of people don't seem to realize, there's also a lot of talent on this team.''

Stoneman was hired in November of 1999 and soonafter hired Mike Scioscia as his manager. Both agreed that the core players were in place. All that was needed was a little tweaking here and there to make the team a winner.

It took only two seasons to put the right players in place and develop the right attitude to make it a winner.

``There's no doubt (Stoneman) gets to put his name under the credits,'' Salmon said. ``He's the mastermind and the reason everyone's here. With the speculation coming in that the team would be dismantled, he was able to point us in the right direction without tearing us apart.''

Still, it wasn't a road without detours along the way. Salmon's name came up in trade rumors before he signed a four-year extension in the spring of 2001. Percival was so unhappy with his situation this time last year that he promised he wouldn't be back. Darin Erstad was traded to the White Sox last winter before the bigshots at Disney said no deal.

``The way it's worked out has been awesome,'' said Percival, who signed a two-year deal before the season. ``We've always had a good core here, but we didn't have the auxiliary players. After they did what they did in the offseason, when we got to spring training, we said this is it. This is our opportunity. Don't waste it. You never know when you're going to have it again. Bill put us in position from day-one to get to the playoffs.''

The trade of Mo Vaughn to the Mets for pitcher Kevin Appier was probably the biggest offseason move Stoneman made. In Appier, the Angels complemented their otherwise inexperienced starting rotation with a seasoned veteran who has won 14 games. In trading Vaughn, they got rid of more than just the 260 pounds he dragged around, they got rid of a player who said he didn't want to be there.

The resulting mix of players has been ideal.

``Mike gets a ton of the credit in terms of keeping the team focused,'' Stoneman said. ``Mike and the coaches have the support of guys like Troy Percival, Tim Salmon and Darin Erstad, guys who had been here before and who really know what it means to be focused. That philosophy permeates the club.''

This is a club that has won more games (96) than any in franchise history, yet everyone seems to credit everyone else. In reality, everyone has made contributions to some degree.

``This club might not have the talent of teams in the past,'' Erstad said. ``But it's a great club because of the character we have.''

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