I just got done watching the Yankees spank my Angels. I guess it's fair, given Thursday's whuppin and Friday's gem. The best part of the game for an Angel fan -- apart from Weaver's four strikeouts to open the game -- was the scattered and all-too-brief clips from the preceding Old Timer's Game. Heck, that should have been the best part for ANY fan. After all, Old Timer's Games are the ultimate fan game, because it celebrates the greatness of your memories. If you were there when Gibson hit his incredible home run in game one of the '88 series, then just the mention of his name takes you back to that game. If you saw game six of the '75 World Series, the mere mention of the names Fisk or Tiant bring tremendous images immediately to mind.
Each man on that field today represented a time, a place, for some fan somewhere. An old pennant race, maybe; glory days of the past, perhaps. Yogi Berra looked great, didn't he? And what a wonderful tribute to Willie Randolph, who deserved so much better than he got from the Mets.
What surprised me was seeing some of the players I watched in high school 30 years ago. If they were in their 30s back then, they're in their 60s now. And I have to tell you: It's scary to see your boyhood heroes looking like old men. When did Reggie get old? And Goose Gossage?
Watching an Old Timer's Game gives one pause for reflection. In the late 1970s, Gene Autry, the late Angels owner, tried to out-Steinbrenner ol' King George. He authorized his GM, Buzzi Bavasi, to go after some big names, a few of whom still had some life in them. Successes were Brian Downing, Bobby Grich, Rod carew, Don Baylor. Less successful were Joe Rudi and Bert Campaneris. But it was an incredible roster to behold for Angel fans who ached for the big dance. We also had the privilege of watching two of the league's best pitchers in Frank Tanana and Nolan Ryan.
All this reminiscing took me back to the Angels' first playoff appearance in 1979. Actually, to the prior season. Specifically, to August 5, 1978, The Day It All Began.
I had a cadre of fellow California fans -- they were the California Angels then and were sure about what city they were from --and we went to as many games as we could that summer. My buddy Jimbo had a 1971 Plymouth Roadrunner that could comfortably seat all eight of us. With a buck to park and a buck each to sit in the oxymoronically titled "View" level -- where you pray and it's a local call -- it was pretty cheap entertainment.
The Angels' roster was beefy enough that we expected a lot more than we were getting from them that year. Rudi, Grich and Baylor were already resident in Anaheim. On the other hand, the Halos had Ron Fairly on their roster in the final year of his career. Ron turned 70 last month.
We were having a frustrating time in our section -- by "our section" I mean no one else was sitting in it. Back then the Angels were lucky to draw 20,000 to a game, and that was "paid attendance," which we all know means a ticket was bought, but it's no guarantee a butt's in a seat. The upper decks were always empty in 1978, unless helmets or bats were being given away.
That day, August 5, the Angels were playing Minnesota in a double header and had already dropped the first game, 4-3, and were down 3-0 in the 5th in game two. As Neil Diamond might have said, it was a stinkin' hot August night.
I don't remember if my cadre started it, or just grabbed somebody else's ball and ran with it. But the Angels started to make some noise in the bottom of the fifth and we started to make some noise back. When no one's sitting by you, that makes the empty seat directly in front of you your own personal drum. And we began pounding. Me, Jimbo, Dean, Frank, and the rest of the guys, boom-boom-BOOM! boom-boom-BOOM! boom-boom-BOOM!
As if to will our team into doing something productive, we added a chant: Yes we CAN! Yes we CAN! Over and over, louder and louder. Soon the five guys in the next section picked it up. And the eleven guys in the next section. You could hear people picking it up all over the stadium. And then the amazing happened: The Angels scored a run.
The crowd went nuts. We who had pounded our seats KNEW we had made that run happen. We picked it up big time in the sixth, joined by an ever-increasing crowd of joiner-inners. The fact that the Angels did nothing in the sixth didn't deter us a bit. The seventh was downright magical as the Halos pushed three runs across. With each run, the cheers got more maniacal and the chair-thumping more frenetic. California took the second game, 4-3, and unbeknown to us at the time, a movement was born.
The next day, fans who had been at the previous day's game picked up the "Yes we CAN!" with equal verve. And the next game. And the next. The Angels finished the season tied with the Rangers for second, five games back of the division-winning Royals. The season promised great things for 1979.
When the new season began, the chant continued. California's marketing department capitalized on it and made "Yes we CAN!" (with a halo over the "A" in "CAN," of course) the official battle cry of the 1979 season. What made it all great was we actually DID, winning the Western Division, until Baltimore crushed our dreams in the playoffs. Glory had to wait another 23 years.
I think about that day a lot because it reminds me of two things. First, I appreciate this year's success because most Angel seasons haven't been successful. I understand right now that Cubs fans think I don't know what I'm talking about. But hey -- the Red Sox have won two World Series this decade. Anything can happen. And when it does, savor the moment.
The other thing it reminds me of is how much the game needs its fans. What I love about Arte Moreno is that he understands that. So does Mark Cuban, Cubs fans. He's an arrogant, self-serving, annoying human being, but he's great for sports because he sees the game the way the fan does.
Here's to the fans. Here's to my Angels. And here's to my cadre, wherever they are. Go pound some seats for your team.