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A shipment of get-well cards from kids at the Children's
Hospital of Orange County arrived for the ailing California
Angels last Saturday morning at their hotel in Arlington, Texas.
Angel utilityman Rex Hudler was nearly in tears as he
distributed the heartfelt messages to his teammates in the
clubhouse before that night's game against the Texas Rangers. On
each card was a picture of the child who had written the
accompanying words of encouragement. One little girl, Angelica,
sent her card to catcher Greg Myers with the inscription, "Dear
Greg. Win. Please."

The missives didn't help. The reeling Angels fell behind 5-0
after one inning en route to a 5-1 loss, their ninth in a row
and 27th in their last 35 games.

In mid-August, California was 64-38, running away with the
American League West title, leading the majors in runs scored
and being hailed as the best team in the 35-year history of the
franchise. Yet at week's end, despite a 5-0 win against the
Rangers on Sunday, the Angels were two games behind the Seattle
Mariners in the West and a half game behind the New York Yankees
in the race for the American League wild-card playoff spot.

"I toss and turn every night thinking, What the hell is going
on?" California third baseman Tony Phillips said before last
Saturday's game. "I've never been part of anything like this."
Neither has anyone else. According to the Elias Sports Bureau,
when the Angels went from 10 1/2 games ahead in the West on Aug.
16 to a first-place tie with the Mariners on Sept. 20, it was
the quickest disappearance--35 days--of a lead that large in this
century. The previous fastest free fall came in 1951, when the
Brooklyn Dodgers took 44 days to spit up a 10 1/2-game lead over
the New York Giants. Those teams were tied at the end of the
season, and the Giants won the pennant in a playoff best
remembered for Bobby Thomson's home run. California's postseason
fate hinged on the outcome of its two-game series at Seattle
early this week.

"We've got to be greedy. We've got to go up there and win them
all," Hudler said of the impending showdown with the Mariners.

A team with a grisly postseason history, California has not
played in the World Series since the franchise's inception in
1961. The Angels blew a 2-0 lead over the Milwaukee Brewers in
the best-of-five 1982 American League Championship Series and
collapsed after taking a 3-1 lead over the Boston Red Sox in the
best-of-seven '86 playoffs. They also lost in their only other
ALCS appearance, 3-1 to the Baltimore Orioles in '79, and came
up short in runs at the West division title in '85, '89, '91 and
'93, usually stumbling in the second half of the season.

But in building its huge lead this year, California seemed
different. These Angels were younger, more talented and
seemingly hungrier than their predecessors. They appeared
determined to defy the preseason forecasts (including SI's) of a
last-place finish. Then they caved in.

During their 8-27 stretch the Angels were outscored 53-14 in the
first inning and were ahead in only 59 of 318 innings. As
manager Marcel Lachemann said after last Saturday's defeat,
"I've seen teams play as badly as we have, but I've never seen
it happen to a team after it had played as well as we had."

What happened? Most important, the California lineup lost its
punch. Through Aug. 15 the Angels averaged 6.20 runs per game;
over the next five weeks they averaged 3.72. Centerfielder Jim
Edmonds, once a leading candidate to be the American League Most
Valuable Player, went almost three weeks without an RBI during
the collapse, while first baseman J.T. Snow's batting average
dropped from .309 to .287. The loss of All-Star shortstop Gary
DiSarcina, who tore ligaments in his left thumb on Aug. 3, was
devastating. He was hitting .317, with 26 doubles, five homers
and 41 RBIs, and had made only five errors in 89 games. In his
absence the Angels used four different shortstops, who combined
to hit .210 with five extra-base hits, 13 RBIs and eight errors
in 44 games. DiSarcina returned to the lineup last Friday night.

The pitching slumped too, with the staff ERA a whopping 6.04
during a 27-game span that concluded Sunday. Lefthanders Chuck
Finley and Mark Langston, the two top men in the rotation, have
been a disappointment, going a combined 2-7 with a 7.16 ERA
since Aug. 25. Neither is a stopper like the Mariners' Randy
Johnson or the Yankees' Jack McDowell and David Cone--pitchers
who can single-handedly overpower an opponent.

In addition, Phillips, for one, has wondered about "the fire" on
his team. "I beat the ---- out of the helmet rack last night to
try to get some intensity going," he said last Saturday.
"Intensity! Intensity! We're in first place, we're trying for a
playoff spot. The intensity level isn't what it should be for a
first-place team. We're fighting for our lives. I'm screaming,
'Let's go! Let's go!' At this time of the year, you can't be
laid back."

But the Angels are laid back and unemotional. Veterans Finley,
Langston, DH Chili Davis and closer Lee Smith are quiet leaders
by nature. So is Lachemann, whose calm demeanor hasn't changed
since he replaced Buck Rodgers as manager in May 1994. He has
thrown no tantrums during his team's collapse, and only one
postgame spread (pizza) was trashed, and that was by a player.
"That works for some guys, not me," Lachemann says. "No one
cares more than me. But you have to be who you are."

What the Angels are is an extremely young team--five regulars
have three years or less big league experience--that perhaps
wasn't prepared for the rigors of a pennant race. Even last
weekend, as they tumbled out of the West lead, the California
players appeared loose and relaxed in the clubhouse, watching
football on TV. "It's easy to think that way before the game,
then the ---- gets hot," says the 36-year-old Phillips. "It
takes a mentally strong person to say, 'We're still going to win
[after his team falls behind].' That's not the case here now. If
you're not positive, you don't have a chance. The kids don't
understand the importance of all this. How can they? They've
never been here. They think they're going to be in the race
every year. You can't tell a kid how important this is. They
can't comprehend it."

One of those kids, Eduardo Perez, energized the Angels last
Friday night with a two-run, pinch-hit homer in the seventh,
tying the game with the Rangers at 3-3. But in the bottom of the
seventh Langston gave up an opening single to Benji Gil, who
entered the game hitting .099 (nine for 91) against lefthanders.
Gil went to second on a passed ball and scored on a single by
Otis Nixon, who went to second when Edmonds overthrew the cutoff
man. After Langston walked the next two batters, reliever Mike
James came on and gave up a three-run double to Juan Gonzalez,
sending Texas to an 8-3 win.

The next night the Angels took the field as a second-place team
for the first time since July 1. They played like a last-place
team. Finley, an All-Star this season, was behind 5-0 after 23
pitches. Three cheap singles followed by home runs by Gonzalez
and Mickey Tettleton put California in another hole from which
it could not escape. It marked the ninth time since Aug. 15 that
the Angels were behind by at least 3-0 before the end of the
first inning. "Everyone is trying so hard to pull us out of
this," said California rightfielder Tim Salmon, who has done his
part in hitting .371 with 19 homers and 58 RBIs since the
All-Star break. "It's paralyzing us."

With each Angel loss came more reminders of the great fold-ups
of all time--the 1951 Dodgers, the '64 Phillies, the '78 Red Sox.
California third base coach Rick Burleson was a member of that
Boston team, which had a 14-game lead over New York on July 19
and lost the division title in a one-game playoff with the
Yankees. He says the feeling now is the same as it was 17 years
ago. "It tears you up inside," Burleson says. "Guys on this team
started asking me about it when we had a five- or six-game lead.
I told them, 'If you don't win, you're going to live with it the
rest of your lives.' If the '78 team had won the playoff game,
we would never have been called a choke team--and there won't be
a lot said about this being a choke team if we make it to the

Heading into the last week of the season, that was a very big

COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON The Angel demise had to be seen to be believed; last Saturday night Lachemann could no longer watch. [Marcel Lachemann]

COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Though he was one Angel who didn't slump, Salmon still was fooled by this pitch last week. [Tim Salmon]

COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO The effort was there from players like Hudler, but California kept coming up empty on the field. [Rex Hudler]

"I toss and turn every night thinking, What the hell is
going on?"