October 7, 2002
The Daily Prospectus
Defending the Bandwagon
The scene outside Edison Field Saturday following the Angels' first playoff series win in its 42 years of existence was unlike any I'd ever seen. SUV after SUV whizzing by, piloted by soccer moms, hordes of kids peeking out back seat windows, waving Rally Monkey dolls and Satan Sticks--inflatable red noise makers handed out to fans that'll have me seeing an ear doctor for the next oh, 10 years or so.
One mom cruised by with her son in a shiny, new Lexus convertible, urging my Yankee-rooting friend to switch rooting interests, as if you can just ditch 25 years of devotion on a whim. This is baseball?
Actually, yes it is.
The game needs fans of all stripes coming out to the park, clicking on their TVs to watch, buying simian-related paraphernalia. Die-hard fans wield the word "bandwagon" like a machete. Nothing worse than a fair-weather booster, coming out of hibernation from the skate park, or Pottery Barn, or wherever it is these creatures dwell, they snarl.
I used to think that way too. My favorite hockey team growing up, the Montreal Canadiens--the Habs, as they're commonly called--featured one of the most loyal, knowledgeable fan bases you'll ever see. Every seemingly meaningless November game drew volumes of breathless commentary in the city's four daily papers. And you read 'em all, even the three in French. If you briefly forgot the name of your second-born, no problem, as long as you could name the team's seventh and eighth defensemen.
We sure as hell didn't wave stuffed monkeys out of car windows when the Habs won the Stanley Cup every seven years.
The perennially contending Habs never taught me anything about sacrifice and suffering though. They didn't need to. My beloved Montreal Expos gave me more than enough heartache.
In the 1980s, the Spos fielded several hugely talented teams that fell just short of the playoffs. Fans showed up in droves, waiting for the inevitable dynasty to unfold. This was a town used to winning, and the Expos would surely follow the Canadiens' lead, fans figured.
But too many close calls, a few lean years and declines in poutine futures eventually drove fans away. A city used to winning and partying (ask Major League ballplayers where their favorite road destination is--off the record) grew tired of the Expos' act. Throw in long-time owner Charles Bronfman's departure and the Expos' annual moving watch kicked into high gear.
Then, improbably, 1994 happened. Powered by an exciting, young core of stars, the Expos started winning. A lot. Obsessed die-hards like me kept hitting the Big O for games, same as always. Only now, tens of thousands of new faces showed up too. They blew these obnoxious red horns, clanged metal seats to a deafening pitch, and couldn't tell their Fasseros from their elbows.
You know the rest of the story. A work stoppage wiped out the rest of the season, and the league-leading Expos never got to consummate their shot at glory. That wasn't the worst of it. The fans that showed up when it was the cool thing to do, the bandwagoners, never came back.
You can name dozens of reasons why MLB now wants baseball out of Montreal. The lack of fannies in the seats, bandwagon-forged cheeks or not, tops the list.
Take that lesson to heart. There but for the grace of the Monkey go the Angels. Maybe your favorite team too.
The Angels put a huge 8-spot on the board in the bottom of the fifth Saturday, grabbing a seemingly insurmountable 9-2 lead. Really the only way the Angels could blow it would be to somehow burn through all their pitchers in the next four innings, then have Scioscia come out and point to me in the upper deck, signaling for the 60 MPH fastball and knee-buckling curve (my own knees, that is).
This almost happened. After laboring through five trouble-filled innings on 94 pitches, Jarrod Washburn took a seat. You might have argued for one more inning out of the Angels' ace, but after sitting through an eight-run inning, a sluggish sixth was entirely possible.
Before the game started, Joe Sheehan and I ran through the Angels' bullpen choices. Ben Weber was still questionable with a bum index finger after trying to field a Game 2 grounder barehanded. John Lackey had thrown three innings the night before, so he was out. Twenty-year-old Octavio Dotel clone Francisco Rodriguez had thrown two high-stress innings the night before and 33 pitches in two innings Wednesday. Scott Schoeneweis had appeared as a token one-batter lefty throughout the series and late in the season, and stunk even at that simple job.
That left Brendan Donnelly, fresh and possibly the team's best reliever, and Troy Percival, the closer. If the Angels went Washburn-Donnelly-Percival, they'd be in great shape. If they didn't, hoo boy.
Donnelly ceded a run in the 6th, but still looked strong going into the 7th. He put a man on with one out, bringing up Jason Giambi.
Apparently the Book smacked Scioscia upside the head a few too many times during the game. The Angels' manager brought in Schoeneweis to face Giambi, taking out his last remaining pitcher with no injury or usage concerns, who doesn't suck. Giambi singled, and Scioscia pulled Schoeneweis, bringing in Rodriguez.
Whether or not you lie awake at night cursing pitcher arm injuries caused by overuse, this move spelled trouble. In his short career, Rodriguez has established himself as an effectively wild pitcher. Bring him in to strike out the side with a man on third and nobody out. Don't bring him in when your team's only concern is keeping men off base to protect a six-run lead.
Sure enough, Rodriguez walked Bernie Williams, coming nowhere near home plate. Then he bounced a wild pitch, making it 9-4. Jorge Posada struck out after swinging at a pitch out of the zone. Raul Mondesi walked. Rodriguez managed to get Nick Johnson on a pitch grooved down the middle. Had Johnson reached base, Robin Ventura, he of the 400-foot double earlier in the game, would have come up carrying the tying run. It never should have been that close.
The Angels holding on doesn't justify Scioscia's actions. If the Yankees' balls in play find holes like the Angels' hits did all day, the 42-year drought for Angels fans may have continued. Scioscia's refusal to take off the Book's handcuffs, a disease that plagues nearly all managers, would have been to blame.
As is, Schoeneweis shouldn't be on the roster for the next round if all he's going to do is force Scioscia to use him for one batter and fail at his job. These seemingly small tactical moves can trigger much bigger problems when the manager fails to execute a simple, logical plan.
While we're here, a question for Joe Torre. Where the heck was John Vander Wal, as the Angels trotted out righty reliever after righty reliever?
One more. When The Boss goes looking for a new vessel to take millions of his dollars this off-season, priority number one should be addressing his atrocious defense up the middle. Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams have all the range of doped-up manatees. Alfonso Soriano won't make anyone forget Frank White either. Jeter and Williams need to move to other positions, maybe Soriano too if the Yanks can find the right new bodies. And no, a $20 million deal for Steve Finley isn't the answer.