By Rob Goldman, AngelsWin.com Historical Writer -
Edison International Field, October 26, 2002
Scott Spiezio knew he’d hit it well. How well, he wasn’t sure; but from the moment he turned on the Felix Rodriguez fastball, he felt it had a chance to go out. As he left the batter’s box and headed for first base, the crowd became eerily silent. Spiezio stared at the ball he had crushed just moments before, now hanging high in the sky.
“Please, God, make the ball go out! Please!,” he thought to himself.
Spiezio had tattooed the low inside fastball. He had put his absolute best swing on it. And as Rodriguez whirled around to spot his pitch sailing high above the outfield grass, Spiezio paused momentarily to revel in the moment. Had he just erased 40 years of bad breaks and bad luck for the Angels? Was the misfortune of one franchise vanquished with one swing of his bat?
At that moment, the person best equipped to answer that question was Giants right fielder Reggie Sanders. Although Sanders was well aware of the game-changing potential of the ball headed in his direction, he was unaware of the emotional baggage that came along with it. He was too focused on the present to be concerned with the ghosts of Angels past.
Although the Giants were ahead 5-0, Sanders had been around long enough to know that in the postseason, momentum can change in a flash. As he raced to the warning track, Spiezio was frozen between home and first. Just like the ball, he, too, was suspended in limbo.
“Push it out, God! Push it out!” He screamed inside his head.
No matter who or what your beliefs may reside in—God, fate, baseball superstition, or curses—it’s certain that something had kept the Angels at bay for 40 years. Something had seen to it that the Angels remained a frustrated franchise, occasionally on the cusp of greatness, but never able to grasp it. So why would tonight be any different?
Something suggested that it just might. Maybe it was the electric undercurrent that charged its way through a restless crowd. Throughout this wild month of October, the underdog Angels had accomplished amazing feats. They had out muscled the heavily-favored Yankees three games to one in the divisional series. They had out pitched the Twins with relative ease to clinch the American League pennant. Now it was Game 6 of the 2002 World Series, and the Angels were staring down defeat. Just nine outs stood between the Giants and a World Series trophy. It was time for David to pull back on his slingshot and launch a killer stone at Goliath. It was time for the mighty Giants and the magnificent Barry Bonds to fall.
The slingshot in this case was Spiezio’s T141 black Louisville Slugger. Just days earlier, Spiezio had been spotted among the fake rocks beyond the centerfield fence at Edison International Stadium yielding another weapon: his electric guitar, which he smashed into the ground—a la The Who’s Pete Townsend—during the filming of a team promotional video. Spiezio’s brash style and Generation X attitude epitomized the modern player. He shared nothing in common with Donnie Moore, Gene Mauch, and the ghosts of Angels past. Those Angels were long gone. It was time to make a mark for the new Angels.
The 2002 Angels had already proven that the team had the potential to be an instrument of change. Now, Scott Spiezio was poised to be the messenger and deliver the Angels into a new era of baseball. He was used to the bright lights of the small stage as front man of an alternative rock band, but never had Spiezio been on a stage so massive with lights beaming so bright. On this night, Spiezio would thrust himself onto center stage of the baseball universe.
* * *
Miles away from Edison International Stadium at his home in La Quinta, California, Albie Pearson was saying a little prayer as well. Prayer came easily to Pearson, an ordained minister since the 1970s. An original Angel, Pearson had patrolled centerfield for the club during its first five seasons. Now, surrounded by grandkids and bowls of fresh popcorn, Pearson felt like shouting as he watched the game on TV, but instead he repeated his quiet, fervent petition, “Please, God, make it go out!”
In Houston, Texas, where he was promoting a boxing match, the Angels’ first and only Cy Young Award winner squinted at his battery-operated TV and smiled a wicked smile. Dean Chance had been writing daily reports on the World Series for the L.A. Times and bragging to anyone who would listen that the Angels would beat the Giants in four straight. “It’s meant to happen,” Chance told himself as Spiezio paused between home and first. “Unbelievable.”
“If only Gene could see this!” thought Jim Fregosi, as he leaned toward the big-screen TV in his living room in Tarpon Springs, Florida. Gene Autry’s “Fair-haired Boy,” Fregosi had carried the franchise on his back during its first 10 seasons. In his heart he had always been an Angel. Now he was a speechless one.
“Shouldn’t have taken this long,” thought a reflective Alex Johnson, watching the game in his Detroit, Michigan home. “We should’ve won the damned thing in ’ 70!” For Johnson, the only Angel to ever win a batting title, the moment was bittersweet. The controversial slugger-turned-mechanic still believed the 1970 Angels were the real team of destiny, not this one.
But there was nothing but joy in a hotel room in San Antonio, Texas. “It’s their year!” rejoiced Nolan Ryan, watching the game on his hotel room TV. The players’ collective effort had impressed Ryan, who fully understood that teamwork—more than anything else—was the trait that brought about championships.
“Yes, we can! Yes, we can! It’s happening all over again!” Don Baylor shouted to his wife in the living room of their home in La Quinta. Baylor was referring to his 1979 MVP season, when fans chanting “Yes, we can! Yes, we can!” helped propel the Angels to their first divisional title.
A proud Rod Carew was also watching the game on TV from his California home in Cota De Caza. Just two hours earlier he’d been at the stadium to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. He left after that to go home and look after his wife. As the Angels’ hitting coach in the mid-’90s, Carew had taught many of the current Angels their batting skills.
Reggie Jackson was at the stadium entertaining friends in an upstairs suite. The former Angels superstar knew a thing or two about October magic, and what was happening out on the field looked like the genuine article to him.
“We should have taken those tickets!” Jim Abbott whispered to his wife at the Café Zulu restaurant in Laguna Beach, California. The former Angel pitching ace had declined the team’s offer of tickets due to a prior commitment. Now, as he sat transfixed—like everyone else in the restaurant—by the scene on the television, a wave of regret swept over him. If the Angels pulled it out tonight, Abbott would throw out the first ball for Game 7 tomorrow, and it would take a building falling on him for him to miss that one.
Up in the stadium press box, Jackie Autry was on her feet. Only moments before, wearing her late husband’s Stetson cowboy hat and waving a rally monkey, Mrs. Autry had energized the dispirited crowd. She stood in awe as Spiezio’s blast hung in the darkening sky, gritted her teeth, and whispered, “C’mon, do it for Gene! Win it for the Cowboy!”
Reggie Sanders could care less about cowboys. As he retreated to the outfield wall, Spiezio’s crushing blow fell from the black sky. Sanders leapt into the fence, his hip inadvertently hitting the foam padding lining it. The ball landed beyond his reach, disappearing into the second row of the right field stands. The stadium erupted in acknowledgment that something was indeed happening—a new chapter in Angels history was being penned on the fly as Spiezio rounded the bases and touched home plate.
Somewhere a cowboy was singing….
© 2006, Once They Were Angels, A History of the Team, Robert Goldman