Friday, May 1, 2015

By Glen McKee, Senior Nostalgistican - 

Almost a week ago, there was magic on the field at Angels Stadium as the only three Angels to be honored as MVP were on the field together.  Mike Trout was the newest member of the exclusive club, joining current hitting coach Don Baylor, all-time awesome dude Vladimir Guerrero and nobody else.  (Trout is a safe bet to become the only Angel to get the award more than once.) (No whammy!)

I started rooting for the Angels way back in 1979 and that was a great time for a young boy to jump on the Halo bandwagon.  Baylor had a monster season and capped it with his MVP award.  The Angels were suddenly relevant and there was a lot of reason for optimism (something the late 80s through the entire 90s would cure).  They even had Rod Carew, who I loved because I hit like him, or so I kidded myself. (Not much pop but I got on base.) 

After 1979 the Angels had mixed luck dipping their toes in the free-agent market; most of the mix was bad.  They made a habit of signing just-past-their-prime big names and watching their performance tail off while paying them way too much to do it.  That trend continued until before the 2003 season, when the Angels surprised everybody (their loyal fans most of all) by signing Vladimir Guerrero to a five-year, $70 million deal.  I know that in 2015 that doesn’t sound like much but it was huge back then.  It was a big contract and the Angels had a history of being burned on those in the past, but Vlad finally broke that streak.  Boy, did he break it.  

There are no words to adequately describe how surprised and overjoyed I was at that signing.  It was amazing.  At the time Vlad was one of the most exciting players to watch.  Every at bat, hell, every pitch was something you had to see.  Even if the pitch bounced before hitting the plate, Vlad could still take a hack at it and knock it out of the park.  He was a unique hitter, and he had the personality to complement his talent.  Vlad was always smiling and looked like he was always having fun.  He was so damn easy to root for.  Truly, the Angels had never had a player like him before, and it was shocking that he wound up on the Angels.  Every team that had the financial resources wanted him, and before he signed with the Angels he was expected, almost guaranteed, to go the Yankees. 

Nobody expected him to sign with the Angels.  I didn’t even think there was a chance he’d end up here.

A bit of personal history here, to further explain how great this signing was to me: the Montreal Expos were my #2 team after the Angels.  I was living in San Diego and I wished the Padres well as they were the local team, but I liked the Expos more.  They were a fun and exciting team, and they continually produced good players that went on to greatness on other, more popular teams.  The Expos were shafted hard by the baseball strike in 1994 that prematurely ended a season in which they were the consensus best team and had a very good chance of winning the World Series.  That was the kind of luck the Expos had, and I found it easy to root for them, since I was already rooting for a team that had an excess of bad luck.  Plus, they had one of my favorite logos:

It was a horrible logo, for sure, but a bit clever and it represented their outsider status.  It’s the logo that will be on Vlad’s hat when he goes into the Hall of Fame.  (We dare not hope that it could ever be an Angels hat.)  I still like it, and Vlad always reminds me of the logo.

Back on topic.  Vlad signed with the Angels and I was ecstatic.  Again, it is difficult to find words to express what that signing meant.  A few years prior the Angels had finally won a World Series championship, and the team was showing signs of being good for a while, but it was still missing something.  Vlad was that something.

He rewarded the Angels by having a great season with them in the first year of his contract, a feat that hasn’t been duplicated since.  We’re talking MVP-great here: 124 runs, 39 HR, .337/.391/.538/.989.  To put that in perspective, Mike Trout’s MVP numbers were 115 runs, 36 HR, .287/.377/.561/.939 and Don Baylor’s MVP year was 120, 36, .296/.371/.530/.901.  Vlad’s MVP season was arguably the best season ever posted by an Angel (although Trout’s first two years, in which he should have won at least one MVP award, are certainly close).  

Vlad also had a cannon for an arm in right field.  It wasn’t unusual to see him making a close play or an out of somebody trying to tag up from second and go to third.  His only liability was as a baserunner, and while Trout has received the spirit of Vlad’s hitting, it seems like the rest of the Angels have inherited Vlad’s recklessness on the bases.
There were many great moments for Vlad on the Angels, but the one that sticks out in my mind was in the first round of the 2009 AL division playoffs.  October 11, 2009.  A Sunday, and the game was in the wretched Fenway Park.  The Angels were up two games and looking for a sweep but it didn’t look like it was going to happen.  Top of the 9th inning and the Angels were down 6-4 and facing Jonathan Papplebon, in his prime, at home. was hosting a party to watch the game at a local (and now defunct) sports bar and the atmosphere was resigned.  Not much of a chance against Papplebon, and the Red Sox had a history of owning the Angels in the post season.  Everybody was trying not to think about 1986 but not succeeding. 

Papplebon was one strike away from ending the game several times, but Erick Aybar got a single, Chone Figgins got a full-count walk, and Bobby Abreu (he was a blast, too) doubled to drive in a run. Torii Hunter was up next and was intentionally walked.  As feared as he was in the regular season, Vlad was bad in the post-season.  The bad feelings intensified.  Honestly, nobody wanted to see Vlad in that situation.  The crowd in the bar was silent. 

The silence didn’t last long.  Vlad blooped the first pitch for a single and Figgins and Abreu scored, giving the Angels a lead that would lead to the sweep.  My memory is spotty about a lot of things, but I believe that until the day I die I’ll still remember what it was like to be in that bar with all those Angels fans when Vlad ended the Angels misery against the Red Sox.  It was incredible.  People were hollering and hugging, champagne bottle corks were popped; it’s not an exaggeration to say it was euphoric.  There was absolutely no doubt after that single that the Angels would win the game.  

The Red Sox were beat down; it’s safe to say they felt the way the Angels did in the divisional playoffs of 1986.  Anguish was laid to rest and while it was as always a team effort, it was Vladimir Guerrero who waved the magic wand to make it happen.  

It was also the last moment that Vlad would have on the Angels, as his contract expired that year and he moved on to the Texas Rangers.  It was a sad parting but not unexpected, as he was showing some slight decline and his free-swinging style didn’t seem to be a safe bet to avoid more regression.  He had two more decent years, in 2010 with the Rangers and 2011 with the Orioles.  The 2011 season was his last in the majors.   On March 31, 2014 Vladimir Guerrero signed a one-day contract with the Angels and officially retired.  

Nostalgia is a wonderful thing: it lets you remember the good and gloss over the bad.  Nostalgia will always let me see Vlad getting that game-clinching playoff single and never remind me of his playoffs performances before that.  Nostalgia will always give me Vlad’s smile and his ability to hit any pitch.  Nostalgia keeps Vlad in the memory of all Angels fans.  I miss Vlad.  He was a great and inimitable player.
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