California Angels

1965 – 2007

The California Angels manage to gear up to challenge the league’s best every so often. Historically, they only get as far as the League Championship Series, then tend to spend several years at the bottom of the league retooling. They have had spectacular, deep pitching rotations, and a few mighty offenses, but the two have rarely coincided.

After Cowboy Gene Autry’s film career stalled in the mid-fifties, he founded the Los Angeles Angels in December of 1960. The original Angels were a jumble of sluggers. Led by outfielders Leon Wagner (.280, 28 homers, 79 RBIs) and Ken Hunt (.255, 25, 84), catcher Earl Averill (.266, 21, 59), and first baseman Steve Bilko (.279, 20, 59) their 189 home runs ranked second only to the mighty Yankees (240) in the American League.

The Angels finished eighth in their debut season of 1961 (spent in Wrigley Field, an old Pacific Coast League stadium) but jumped to third in 1962, their first season in Chavez Ravine — otherwise known to resentful Dodger fans as Dodger Stadium. New first baseman Lee Thomas (.290, 26, 104) added punch to a revamped lineup, while the pitching staff was led by rookie pitcher Dean Chance (14-10, 2.96), who sported a twisting wind-up, a hard fastball, and a disquieting tendency not to look at home plate once he received the catcher’s sign.

But the Angels stopped hitting in 1963 and would not start again for some time. Chance won the Cy Young in 1964, (20-9, 1.65, with eleven shutouts), and rookie pitcher Bob Lee (6-5, 1.61 with 19 saves) was sensational in relief, but their best hitter was shortstop Jim Fregosi (.277, 18, 72). The Angels renamed themselves the California Angels and moved to Anaheim in 1965, where they sunk to the bottom of the league for the remainder of the decade. Chance won 15 games in 1965 and another 12 in 1966 but complained about a lack of support, and was summarily dealt to Minnesota; he was replaced by a gaggle of weary veteran pitchers who gave it whatever they had left and retired.

In 1970, pitcher Clyde Wright, who had been unsuccessfully waived after a 1-8 record the year before, developed a screwball and won twenty-two games. The rest of the pitching staff lurched into action, surly outfielder Alex Johnson led the league with a .329 batting average, original Angel and popular shortstop Fregosi (.278, 22, 82) enjoyed his best year, and the Angels won 86 games. Wright won 16 and 18 games in the next two years, but the hitting fell off again, and the Angels tumbled back into the second division where they would stay for most of the decade.

In 1972, Fregosi was traded to the New York Mets for four players. Among the four was a young, wild fireballer with a disciplined work ethic named Nolan Ryan. Ryan would become one of baseball’s most remarkable pitchers, shattering all records for strikeouts and no-hit games. With the Angels, he had some of his most successful seasons, winning 138 games in his eight years with the club (1972-1979) and fanning over three hundred batters in five different seasons, including 1973 when (while going 21-16 with a 2.87 ERA) he fanned 383 batters, breaking Sandy Koufax‘s single-season record by one.

But thanks to the Angels’ now-chronic lack of run production at the plate, Ryan lost frequently, grist for his misguided but somehow numerous detractors. Frank Tanana, who threw nearly as hard and with more control than Ryan, won 102 games in his eight years with the Angels (1973-1980). He led the league in strikeouts in 1975 with 269 before an arm injury cooled off his fastballs.

In 1978, the Angels suddenly started hitting again under Fregosi, who had returned as the team’s manager. Although Ryan had an off-season, Tanana picked up the slack (18-13, 3.65). Designated hitter Don Baylor, acquired from Oakland the year before, belted 34 home runs, and third baseman Carney Lansford drove California’s offense with a .294 batting average, keeping the Angels in contention until they fell behind Kansas City for good in September.

In the off-season, the Angels acquired star first baseman Rod Carew from the Minnesota Twins. One of the best hitters of his era, Carew posted a .318 batting average in his first year with the club. It was the eleventh of what would be fifteen consecutive seasons batting over .300. Baylor, in his finest season (.296, 36, 139) won the MVP. Catcher and fan-favorite Brian Downing (.326, 12, 75), Lansford (.287 19,79), and second baseman Bobby Grich (.294 30,101), rounded out the Angels’ most potent offense ever. Ryan regained his form, winning sixteen, and the Angels won their division for the first time ever, finishing the season three games ahead of the Kansas City Royals.

After the Orioles dispatched the Angels in a four-game LCS, California began to slip. The hitting dropped off again for the next two years, and so Gene Autry reached deep into the pockets of his denim jeans and found enough gold nuggets to entice the heroic Reggie Jackson to join his ballclub for the 1982 season. Jackson paid immediate dividends, slugging 39 home runs and driving in 101 runs; Downing (.272, 29, 77), outfielder Fred Lynn (.299, 21, 86), infielder Doug DeCinces (.301 30,97), and Carew (.319) provided ample offensive support to win the West. The pitching was provided by slider specialist Geoff Zahn (18-8, 3.73) and another cast of fading stars; California won 93 games en route to the division title. The Angels defeated Milwaukee in the first two games of the LCS, lost the last three, and trundled back down into the division basement the following year.

There were some individual highlights during the otherwise disappointing seasons that followed the impressive 1982 campaign. Carew set an Angels’ single-season mark in 1982 with a .339 batting average, and Mike Witt emerged in 1984 (15-11, 3.47) as the new staff ace, pitching a perfect game on the last day of the season. Witt won another fifteen games in 1985, stopper Donnie Moore saved 31 games, and the Angels climbed all the way to second, one game behind the Royals.

In 1986, the Angels came as close as they would ever get to the World Series. Witt won 18, Kirk McCaskill won 17, and Rookie-of-the-Year first baseman Wally Joyner (.290, 22, 100) paced a solid offense as the Angels won their third division crown. Facing the Red Sox in the LCS, California took three of the first four games, and were within one strike of the World Series in Game Six when Moore yielded a game-ending home run to Dave Henderson. Boston triumphed in the final game of the series, sending the stunned Angels home.

The Angels followed up their division championship with another plunge down into the depths of the division, coming up for air in 1989 before diving back down to hit rock bottom again. Veteran Bert Blyleven (17-5, 2.73), Chuck Finley (16-9, 2.57), and Kirk McCaskill (15-10, 2.93) comprised an excellent pitching rotation in 1989, but the Angels’ 91 victories were only good for a distant third-place finish. Closer Brian Harvey (126 saves from 1989 to 1993) was one of few bright spots for the Angels in these years, saving as many as 46 games in 1991.

In 1995, the Angels were ready to make another run at the pennant. Manager Marcel Lachemann had the league’s best outfield in Garret Anderson (.321, 16, 69), Tim Salmon (.330, 34, 105), and Jim Edmonds (.290, 33, 107); Finley and Mark Langston won 15 games, and stopper Troy Percival (1.95 ERA) rekindled memories of Nolan Ryan with his 100-mph fastballs. The Angels led the division for most of the year, but faded at the end and fell into a tie with the Seattle Mariners on the last day of the season. The Angels lost a one-game playoff, and not surprisingly, fell to last place the following season.

Autry sold the Angels to Disney in 1996 (their logo accordingly sprouted an adorable pair of wings) and the team finally embraced its hometown; they are now known as the Anaheim Angels. Terry Collins was hired as manager for the 1997 season and led the club to a respectable second-place finish in the AL West. Opening a remodeled Anaheim Stadium a season later, the Angels once again blew an early August lead and again finished the year in second place, three games behind the Texas Rangers.

Part of the reason for the Angels’ mid-season slump was a strange rash of injuries throughout the season. Among the wounded were first baseman Darin Erstad, second baseman Randy Velarde, third baseman Dave Hollins, outfielder Tim Salmon, and catcher Todd Greene, as well as starters Jack McDowell and ace Chuck Finley, who was struck in the face by a batted ball. The mysterious epidemic continued in 1999, when shortstop Gary DiSarcina and outfielder Jim Edmonds both suffered serious injuries before the All-Star break; even $80 million free-agent signing Mo Vaughn missed over two weeks after spraining his ankle in the first game of the season.

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