The Anaheim Angels

The worst team you’ve never heard of.

The Anaheim Angels aren’t the worst franchise in baseball history, but they are the most pathetic. If you’re a Boston Red Sox or Chicago Cubs fan, you can take pride in your team’s futility, or you can be tortured by it. You can brag about it, or you can bemoan it. But you don’t have to go around explaining it to everyone.

That’s the fate to which Angels fans are doomed. Historically, the Angels have been doubly cursed: Since the franchise’s birth in 1961, it’s been the most frustrating, most agonizing, most heartbreaking team to watch in baseball. And it’s not even famous for it.

Locally, of course, the team’s plight is well-known. Here’s how the Los Angeles Times’ Mike Penner described this year’s World Series squad, the first in the franchise’s 42 seasons to win a playoff series: “The best thing you can say about this team is that it has failed, utterly and completely, in upholding the Angel Way to Play Baseball. Fundamental chapters—How to Fall Apart After a Questionable Managerial Decision, How to Fail to Get the Final Out, How to Choke—are being blithely ignored.” To drive the point home, the Los Angeles Times launched its game coverage of the Angels’ playoff series-clinching victory over the Minnesota Twins by citing the franchise’s “four decades of humiliation,” crowing that “At 5:04 p.m. Sunday, the Angels cast aside their image as bumblers and stumblers and losers.”

But nationally, the Angels don’t have that image. The situation is actually somewhat worse: They’re not known for anything. The Cubs are bumblers. The Red Sox are stumblers. The Montreal Expos are losers. But the Angels? They have no reputation at all.

The Angels deserve to be famous. Since they entered the American League in 1961 as the first expansion team of the modern era (along with the Washington Senators, now the Texas Rangers), they have watched team after team after team beat them to the Fall Classic. Seven of the 12 teams created after 1961 made it to the World Series before the Angels, including two—the Florida Marlins and the Arizona Diamondbacks—that were born in the 1990s. Four younger expansion teams (the New York Mets, Kansas City Royals, San Diego Padres, and Toronto Blue Jays) have been to the World Series more than once, and the Mets and Blue Jays both have two championship flags waving over their stadiums.

But the Angels’ curse is defined by more than simple futility. After all, the Senators/Rangers, created the same year, haven’t been in a World Series. (The Rangers, however, are one up on the Angels in another category.) Nor have the Expos or the Houston Astros, both created in the 1960s. Not to mention the much younger Seattle Mariners, Colorado Rockies, or Tampa Bay Devil Rays. But none of those clubs shares the Angels’ sad history of personal tragedies and late-season collapses.

First, the collapses. The Angels’ autumn flops equal the Boston Red Sox’s, who are much more renowned for them. In 1982, the Angels became the first team to blow a 2-0 lead in a five-game League Championship Series, dropping the next three to the Milwaukee Brewers, who advanced to the World Series. Four years later, the Angels went up 3-1 on the Red Sox in a seven-game playoff and entered the ninth inning of Game 5 leading 5-2. But with two outs and a 2-2 count—one strike away from the World Series—Angels closer Donnie Moore surrendered a home run that put the BoSox up 6-5. The Angels lost 7-6 in 11 innings, then lost the next two games, blowing the entire series.

The Angels accomplished something truly special: In two playoff series, the Angels had six chances to win a game to advance to the World Series. They lost all six. The 1986 team’s feat in particular should rank among baseball’s all-time collapses. But the Red Sox, the Angels’ rivals in futility, did them one better and blew the World Series that year in a more famous fashion, beginning with that grounder through Bill Buckner’s legs. As a result, baseball historians dismiss the Angels’ claims to cursedness. “The Angels are not the Red Sox or the Cubs,” one expert sniffed to the New York Times earlier this month. Even the Angels’ hard-luck movie, Angels in the Outfield, isn’t as well-known as Major League, starring the more famously hard-luck Cleveland Indians.

It’s not just the playoffs that haunt the Angels. For their fans, September has been the cruelest month. Of all the team’s late-season collapses (and there are many), the most bitter took place in 1995, when the Angels led the Seattle Mariners by 11 games on Aug. 3. Over two months they frittered that lead away, ultimately losing a one-game playoff and the division title. As September 2002 began, the Orange County Register noted that since the Angels’ creation, the team has played at a .492 clip before September; after Sept. 1, the team’s winning percentage dropped to .455. Over that period, only the Cubs took a bigger nose dive during the season’s final month.

The Angels also have suffered a bizarre array of personal tragedies. Here’s a sampling, not a complete list by any means: In 1965, a rookie pitcher died from a brain tumor. In 1968, a reliever was paralyzed in a car accident—his wife and two of their three children were killed. In 1972, a car accident killed an Angels infielder. In 1974, yet another car crash killed another reliever. In 1977, a shortstop died in a wreck. The next year, in a case of mistaken identity, an outfielder was shot to death. In 1992, the team bus crashed on the New Jersey Turnpike, nearly killing the manager. And three years earlier in 1989, Donnie Moore, reputedly tortured by that 1986 home run, shot and wounded his wife before killing himself.

What’s going on here? Local legend has it that the Angels’ ballpark—formerly Anaheim Stadium, now christened Edison Field—was built on an Indian burial ground. (What is this, Poltergeist?) Earlier this month, the Press-Enterprise of Riverside, Calif., reported straightforwardly, “City of Anaheim historians have said there is no evidence to indicate that it’s true but nothing to prove it isn’t, either.” The paper added that, “convinced that their ancestors rest underneath the property,” members of a local tribe “blessed the ballpark themselves before this season began.” Maybe that lifted the Angels’ curse. Or perhaps the totemic Rally Monkey has warded it off.

Either way, the other half of the curse has stuck. The feel-good stories in this year’s postseason were the Twins (those loveable Contraction Kids) and the St. Louis Cardinals, who received sympathy for the deaths of a starting pitcher, Darryl Kile,and their longtime broadcaster, Jack Buck. But the Twins’ and Cards’ adversity goes back only a season. The Angels have suffered for four decades. If they win the World Series, all that changes. Or rather, half of it does. The franchise will still be cursed because hardly anyone will realize what’s happened. Once again, Angels fans will have to explain it to them.