For Angels, there's no time like the first time

Wednesday, October 16, 2002

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- People lined up again at the ballpark Monday.

Not to buy World Series tickets; those disappeared last week in a red tidal wave. Not to touch Frankie Rodriguez's garment or pat David Eckstein's head; the players were off.

No, they were there to quench the great American urge for the lookalike T-shirt. They had to wait outside the merchandise store until there was room, but they did, with no police presence. Never underestimate the fan's resolve to resemble other fans.

At lunch, the merchandise maniacs got a treat. Kevin Uhlich, the Angels business boss, brought them the Harridge Trophy, symbolic of the American League Championship that the Angels won Sunday.

"They just wanted to touch it," Uhlich said. "Now all we need is a trophy case."

To really need one, the Angels need more trophies, starting with the one that goes to the first team to win four World Series games.

In '93 the area went just as nuts over the Kings, in the Stanley Cup finals. When they didn't win it and didn't make the playoffs the next four years, the juice disappeared.

"That's what we're hoping to do, to back this up with another great year," Uhlich said. "It seems like we've hardly ever followed up a good year with another one."

The cold, hard truth is that the Angels have never experienced three consecutive winning seasons. They have been back-to-back winners on just three occasions ('78-'79, '85-'86 and '97-'98).

That is why they have shivered in the shadows of Southern California's other franchises and natural wonders. This is their way out.

"We had about 13,300 season ticket holders this year," Uhlich said. "We've already gotten 1,300 new deposits for next year. I think we can get 15,000-16,000. We barely drew two million last year, we were at 2.3 million this year, and I think we should be at 2.6 next year, maybe more."

The Angels' all-time high is 2.8 million in '82.

These days, the ballpark is simply red like a Nebraska football game. Normally, the Angels figure they make $2 per head in their team store. Over the past six weeks, they think they're making four times that, at least.

Add the Rally Monkey, that homemade talisman that probably will be copied or duplicated in 29 other ballparks, and the tireless red drumsticks, and the Angels have a ballpark presence for the first time in ... well, a long time.

"I remember 1979, the first time we made the playoffs," said Uhlich, who was a batboy from '76 through '78 and the assistant equipment manager in '79. "Jim Fregosi was the manager and he was great to me. He let me drive his gold SL when the club was on the road. Can you imagine, a 17-year-old kid?

"Anyway, what I remember is the fans chanting Yes ... We ... Can ... over and over. I wanted to see if we could get the same atmosphere. The sticks help -- it costs us $16,000 a crack but they're sponsored, and they work. I see San Francisco uses them now."

When Uhlich took over, he lobbied to banish the periwinkle pinstripes -- "they looked like pajamas," he said -- and to recapture the red. It was Gene Autry's favorite color. To see "Angels" across the chest, and a cap that included the halo, was to acknowledge a heritage.

"We hadn't won but we'd had great moments and players," Uhlich said. "I didn't think we should turn our back on that. We hired Bobby Grich to reach out to the community. We're trying to bring back other ex-players. We never had a fantasy camp before, but Fregosi is going to run our first one. The periwinkle uniforms were a way of looking to the future, but in baseball, you also have to acknowledge your past."

I'm just wondering if the same guy who threw a baseball at Kevin Appier on Aug. 30, the night that it appeared baseball was going on strike, is whapping those sticks and wearing a Scott Schoeneweis T-shirt.

I'm wondering how many self-righteous curmudgeons who said, "I'll never go to the ballpark to see those overpaid ballplayers again," were back in the ballpark for all five of these Angels playoff victories, cheering for Angels who are no poorer.

The outrage burst through another pore last week when the club put 4,500 Series tickets (per game) on public sale. The lines encircled the stadium, and the Anaheim police estimated 15,000 people showed up. It got ugly, and Uhlich wonders if the Angels shouldn't have put all the tickets on the phone banks and on the internet, as the White Sox did two years ago.

"Maybe next time," he said.

Maybe.

The Angels should know that there is no time like the first time. It's been a smooth ride so far. The world now appreciates this underrated ballpark. The players have gamely handled the media onslaught (note: it gets twice as bad now). The fans have paid attention, have even stayed for nine innings.

It repudiates Tony Tavares' contention that an Orange County pro sports market is hard to find and might not even exist. All along, people tracked the Angels, even when they couldn't find them on TV. Their refusal to attend was their silent commentary. They would come when there was a reason to.

When their other promotion and costume changes and gimmicks (Bo Jackson, Dave Winfield, Dave Parker) had crashed, the Angels finally found the only trick that works. It's called winning. And the only problem is that it's running out of extra-large.

Mark Whicker is a columnist for The Orange County Register in Santa Ana, Calif.

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