Dusty's drama, the Angels' angst

Will the Curse of Keane strike the Giants? Will the Angels' longtime demon torment them once again? Play ball!

Published October 17, 2002 7:26PM (EDT)

On Oct. 7, 1964, Johnny Keane walked slowly and with a slight stoop toward the climax of his 35 years in professional baseball and 22 seasons as a manager. Awaiting him around home plate at the old Busch Stadium in St. Louis were six proud and cheerful umpires, and the grinning face of rival manager Yogi Berra of the Yankees. But Johnny Keane was not smiling. He was bringing a grim secret with him to the meeting that prefaced the 1964 World Series. He had already quit as the Cardinals' manager.

Nearly two months earlier, the man who had hired him, Bing Devine, had been ousted as the Cardinals' general manager in a palace coup that constituted perhaps the blackest marks in the long careers of future Hall of Famers Branch Rickey and Leo Durocher. The fifth-place Cardinals were stumbling ever further out of the pennant race, his boss and best friend had just been given the bum's rush, and nobody in the team hierarchy had even mentioned a chance that Keane might be rehired for 1965.

So as large chunks of the first-place Philadelphia Phillies collapsed around him, Keane and his Cards grimly plodded onward -- and won the pennant. It was around then that owner Gussie Busch called him in to talk about an extension, negotiations Keane asked to delay until after the World Series. Only he knew what he had planned.

The Cardinals, assuming a big raise and a multiyear deal were all that were needed to make Keane forget the pain, called a news conference for Oct. 16 at which they would announce his new contract. Instead, as they all moved toward the microphones, Keane informed them that he was resigning.

Four days later he became the manager of the Yankees, the team he had just beaten in the World Series.

We rarely can hope for such backstage drama at the Fall Classic, but while the early media focus has been on this first-ever battle of Wild Card teams, or on the much-delayed debutante's ball aspect for Barry Bonds, there are two splendid subplots. One is the sinking sensation that since something bad has always happened to the Angels, something worse must necessarily be about to happen to them. And two, evocative of the Keane saga, is the story of Dusty Baker.

For years, the interplay of Baker and Giants' owner Peter Magowan has been a growing clash of personalities - at least six of them. There is the public Baker of the unbridled enthusiasm and periodic strategic vapor lock. There is the off-the-record Baker of the easily, and often justifiably, wounded pride. There is the employee Baker that perhaps only Magowan knows. And the owner has his own three-part persona: officially praising the manager while privately questioning why Baker gets so much credit for the Giants' success and while manipulating Baker into being the public-opinion fall guy whenever Dusty follows Johnny Keane's example.

That should be no later than Halloween. Four days before the World Series was to begin, Baker's friends on the Giants were quoting him about how even this triumph of triumphs had not healed the wounds inflicted by Magowan. There was acknowledgment of the obvious: that the Seattle Mariners would never have put their current manager Lou Piniella up for sale so quickly if they had not already exchanged yearning, knowing winks with his successor, and that - unofficially and within the parameters of contractual monogamy -- those kisses were blown to, and by, Baker.

History, as it inevitably does, offers cautions to the unfailingly likable Baker. Keane could not brook the Cardinals' machinations, so he jumped to the Yankees just in time to watch them collapse utterly. He was fired 20 games into his second season in New York and was dead of a heart attack the following January. The Cards regrouped and won consecutive pennants after his passing. Other managers have entered the World Series with varyingly complete plans of escape -- Dick Williams knew he'd be quitting the Oakland A's in 1973 and going to the Yankees in 1974. His Oakland boss Charles O. Finley had other ideas and blocked the move. The A's won a World Series without Williams in 1974.

Coincidentally, just before his death, Keane had become a scout for the Angels. After the move to the Yankees fell through, Williams became the Angels' manager at perhaps the low point of the franchise's history. He would last barely two years, and his reputation for executive genius would wane, and only be partially restored by a pennant won in San Diego a decade later.

It's like that for the Angels. It always has been. For all of the schmaltzy invocations of "The Cowboy," Gene Autry's tenure as the franchise's founding owner alternated between unending tension and tragedy. The team's first superstar, Bo Belinsky, helped propel the club into first place in the middle of only its second season, 1962. He'd completed a no-hit game. By year's end, he'd completed a tour of Mamie Van Doren and every nightspot in Southern California. Belinsky finished 1962 with 10 wins and 11 losses. The rest of his career saw him win 18 games and pitch for six different teams.

Keep your "Curse of the Bambino," and the "Billy Goat Hex" from Chicago. The Angels have had a disproportionately large number of player deaths. Rookie Dick Wantz jumped to the big team from the bowels of the minor leagues in 1965, pitched in one game, reported severe headaches afterward, and was dead exactly one month later of an inoperable brain tumor. Between 1972 and 1976, pitcher Bruce Heinbechner and infielders Mike Miley and Chico Ruiz were each killed in automobile accidents - Ruiz, just months after teammate Alex Johnson had accused him of pulling a gun on Johnson in the Angels' clubhouse. Still mourned is the generous and gifted outfielder Lyman Bostock. Dissatisfied with his performance as one of the first big-money free agents, Bostock donated the first part of his 1977 salary to charity. The following September, seated in a car next to a woman he did not know, Bostock was fatally shot by the woman's estranged husband.

This is a franchise so vexed that its team bus crashed in 1992. Though the events were separated by 20 years, it has twice tried to invoke divine intervention. Three years ago, pitcher Chuck Finley polled his teammates about hiring a witch doctor to exorcise whatever bad vibes were afflicting the team, particularly the rumor that its stadium had been built atop the proverbial ancient Indian burial ground. General manager Buzzie Bavasi talked a Roman Catholic priest into blessing the place in 1978. Bavasi should've had the cleric focus on the front office. The following winter Bavasi and Gene Autry decided to let Nolan Ryan walk away as a free agent because they wouldn't meet anybody's demand for a salary of $1,000,000, and because they knew Ryan had little shelf life left. He pitched another 14 seasons.

On the field, of course, the Angels have produced three of the greatest gaffes in the sport's long history. In the best-of-five series to determine the American League champion in 1982, the Angels vaulted to a 2-0 lead over Milwaukee only to give it all back in disastrous fashion. Four years later they were one strike away from the World Series, only to see reliever Donnie Moore surrender the game-losing home run to Boston's Dave Henderson. All too well remembered is Moore's descent into madness, and his eventual attack on his wife and his own suicide. (History has been revised of late to attach much blame to the fans and media who "booed Moore unmercifully." I was part of that media -- working at the station that carried the team's games -- and not only was that charge never made while Moore was still alive, it wasn't even believed in the time immediately following his death.) On Aug. 9, 1995, the Angels had an 11-game divisional lead over Seattle. Two months later they had to play a one-game elimination playoff against the Mariners -- and lost it.

Finally there is that tension with the Other Team. The Angels have never quite understood why, no matter how well the team did, Southern California has always been Dodgertown. They have wiggled and gyrated to get out of the Dodgers' shadow, going so far as calling Dodger Stadium "Chavez Ravine" when they were tenants there. They have moved from L.A. proper to far-flung Anaheim. They rechristened themselves the "California" Angels to try to broaden their fan base, then re-rechristened themselves the "Anaheim" Angels to try to focus it. Only this year they had responded to the Dodgers' perennial "Think Blue Week" by ripping every trace of blue from their uniform color scheme and launching their own promotion campaign, dripping of inferiority complexes, called "Think Red Instead."

It all makes sense, of course. Autry got the franchise by accident. His radio station, KMPC, had lost the rights to broadcast the Dodgers' games after the 1960 season. He went to the winter baseball meetings hoping to import the descriptions of some out-of-town team -- the Yankees perhaps. Instead his friends in baseball gave him his own team. The Angels were literally created as a summer replacement show.

So, if you look at the 2002 World Series and think, "The Angels are due," let me ask you this: Due for what?

By Keith Olbermann

Salon columnist Keith Olbermann hosts the ABC Radio Network's "Speaking of Sports ... Speaking of Everything."

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