February 26, 2012

The Interior Angel Stadium

It’s winter, and there is no baseball. The first spring training exhibition games in Florida and Arizona start at the end of the week, and Opening Day – in Tokyo – is a month away.

In “The Interior Stadium”, an essay that appears in the book The Summer Game (1972), Roger Angell writes:
Baseball has one saving grace that distinguishes it–for me, at any rate–from every other sport. Because of its pace, and thus the perfectly observed balance, both physical and psychological, between opposing forces, its clean lines can be restored in retrospect. This inner game—baseball in the mind—has no season, but it is best played in the winter, without the distraction of other baseball news.
The world has changed dramatically in the 40 years since Angell wrote those words. There is constant baseball news now during the off-season—rumours and confirmed trades and free agent signings, PED testing scandals, and from the sabermetric community a steady stream of analysis of the season just past and projections of the season to come.

But recalling the games of the past is still best done in the winter. And I have been thinking lately about the one MLB game I attended during the 2011 season. This was the final game of a three-game series that the A’s played against the Angels, on Sunday, September 25. I am a fan of neither team, but we were going to be in the area, so off we went.

The teams had split the first two games of the series, Oakland winning the Friday opener 3-1 and the Angels taking Saturday’s game 4-2. That win put the Angels 2 ½ games behind the Red Sox and 1 ½ behind the Rays in the chase for the wild card (the Rangers had already clinched the AL West on Friday). For all intents, this was a game the Angels needed to win if their playoff hopes were to be sustained as they headed into the final series of the season, three games against the Rangers.

But I had spent the past five days on a cruise ship, sailing down the coast from Vancouver to Los Angeles, and had been off the grid—all of this was news to me when we landed in L.A. on Sunday morning. So it was a quick glance at the MLB website (the "Road to October" article I read before the game is here) to get the lay of the land before we headed to the ballpark for the afternoon game.

This was my second visit to Angel Stadium, and it strikes me (speaking as one who has been to all of four MLB ballparks) as rather generic. The stadium sits in the middle of a sea of asphalt, surrounded on all sides by parking lots. With that said, once inside the park, it’s a decent place for a ballgame. The ushers and other staff are helpful and friendly, the place is clean, and has a great family-friendly atmosphere. On this last observation, it probably didn’t hurt that it was Fan Appreciation Day, the downside of which was that the team store (50% off everything!) was packed. So no ballpark souvenirs for us on this visit.

They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot. And a baseball stadium.

My wife and I had seats up in the lower tier of the upper deck—a few rows shy of nosebleed—just to the first base side of home. When we arrived at our seats batting practice was winding down, and the place was starting to fill up. (The announced attendance was just over 40,000.) At first, I thought that the chap sitting next to me had divided loyalties, dressed as he was in a red Angels cap and a shirt with the green and gold of the A’s. It took me a moment to realize that it was a football jersey; he spent the entire ballgame listening to the Packers game on his radio, happening 2,000 miles away in Chicago. Most of the folks around us—including quite a few families with kids, which is always great to see—were wearing some form of Angel gear, except for a contingent of maybe eight people a few rows in front of us who were there to root for Oakland. Loudly.

The starting pitchers both entered the games with ERAs north of 5, Rich Harden for the A’s and Joel Pinero for the Angels. Based on that, I anticipated a game with plenty of runs; a slug-fest, even.

But this is baseball, so instead we got something quite different. The game opened with Pinero setting down the A’s in order. In the bottom of the first, the second Angel batter, Howie Kendrick, tripled and scored when Bobby Abreu singled. 1-0 Angels after one inning.

The Angels got something started in the second, with Callaspo leading off with a single, but ultimately they failed to score and left two stranded. In the third, Abreu smacked a solo homer, and Vernon Wells hit another solo shot in the sixth. Fireworks over the waterfalls, much to the delight of the crowd—although they really aren’t that effective on a sunny California afternoon.

Meanwhile, Pinero was mowing down the Athletics—he was perfect through 4 1/3 innings. Oakland’s #5 batter David DeJesus got the team’s first hit with one out in the 5th inning, only have the next batter ground into an inning-ending double play.

Pinero lasted into the seventh, giving up two one-out singles before being lifted for Cassevah. I was surprised by how few fans acknowledged Pinero as he left the field—he’d been very effective, giving up three hits, no walks, and striking out four. But apparently almost nobody noticed. Ultimately the two Oakland runners failed to score, so after seven innings, the score was 3-0.

Things got lively in the eighth inning. Oakland loaded the bases on a pair of singles and a walk, and then plated two runs on another single and a sac fly, narrowing the gap to 3-2 Angels.

Wells strikes out as Hunter and Callespo pull off a double-steal.
But the Angels got the two runs right back in their half of the eighth. Torii Hunter walked to lead off, and then Navarro bunted to move Hunter to second. Callaspo walked, and he and Hunter pulled off a double-steal, much to the delight of the crowd. This was followed by a single to right field, and both Hunter and Callaspo scored.  Needless to say, the crowd was pretty pleased at this turn of events. 5-2 Angels after eight innings, with the win expectancy at 97.5%.

But this is baseball. In the top of the ninth, Josh Willingham led off with a homer. Oakland then proceeded to score three more runs on a string of hits, a goofy error, and a sac fly. After 8 1/2 innings, Oakland was now leading 6-5, and turned the win expectancy to 83.3% in their favour. At this point, the Oakland fans in front of us were more enthusiastic than any of the Angels fans around us had been all game.

In the bottom of the ninth, the crowd didn’t have any spark (not that they had a lot to begin with), and the team didn’t give them anything to cheer about either. Howie Kendrick managed a two-out walk, but that was it. And with the loss, the Angels’ hopes of making the playoffs dimmed to only the faintest of glimmers. (In the final series of the season, they ended up being swept by the World Series-bound Rangers, quite the opposite to what they needed.)

From a neutral fan’s point of view, this was a great game. Pinero’s pitching was worthy of note, and the unlikely Oakland comeback made for an exciting finish.

Some game summaries:



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