10/05/2002 9:26 pm ET
Angels win one for The Cowboy
This playoff win would have made Gene Autry proud
By Jim Street / MLB.com
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- As one of the most memorable innings in Angels history progressed to postseason record-levels Saturday afternoon, you could almost hear The Cowboy singing, "Happy Trails to You," to the Yankees.
This one's for you, Gene Autry.
An organization born 41 years ago out of Autry's love of the game, finally sent another team riding off into the sunset, much to the delight of more than 45,000 Thunder Stick-wielding fans at Edison Field.
An eight-run fifth inning that started against left-hander David Wells and ended against right-hander Ramiro Mendoza gave the Angels' faithful more than a half-hour of practically non-stop vocal cord activity.
Red is in. Pinstripes are out.
"The Cowboy would be thrilled to death," said Jackie Autry, the American League's honorary president and -- like just about everyone else in the clubhouse -- soaked with champagne. "He would have been so gratified to see the people react the way they did.
"I have never seen Orange County react the way they have in this series. It was so gratifying to see them out there screaming and yelling."
The second-largest crowd to ever watch a baseball game at the renovated stadium was on its feet for the top of the ninth inning as Angels closer Troy Percival went to work with a five-run lead.
He retired the first batter. And then the second batter.
Edison Field rocked. Fans stood and clapped their Thunder Sticks.
"I kept saying 'one more out, one more out, one more out'," Mrs. Autry said.
Percival extended the drama when he surrendered three consecutive singles, which produced a run and put two Yankees on base. Anyone aware of the Yankees history of success and the Angels history of failure gulped just a little.
One more out.
Finally, Nick Johnson hit a popup to shortstop David Eckstein for the out that gave the Angels their first postseason series win in franchise history. They had been 0-for-6 in games that could have advanced them to the next level.
Autry was alive for all of them.
He experienced first-hand the agony of the 1979 playoff bust against the Orioles, the '82 collapse against the Milwaukee Brewers, when the Angels won the first two games of the best-of-five series and then lost the last three. There also was the '86 playoffs, the one that Anaheim took a 3-1 lead in games against the Red Sox, but lost it in seven games.
Last but not least came the 1995 season when his Angels led the AL West by 11 games in August, crumbled in September and lost a one-game playoff against the Mariners. Autry died almost three years to the day (Oct. 2, 1998) after that playoff game.
The long road back to the postseason arrived unexpectedly in 2002. A team that finished 41 games out of first place in the AL West in 2001, won 99 games and qualified as the AL Wild Card playoff team.
"I want to get to the next level," Jackie Autry said. "That will mean more to me, and would mean more to The Cowboy. His dream was to have a team play in the World Series."
The Angels are still one step away from the Fall Classic. They'll play either their division colleague Athletics or the AL Central champion Twins in the best-of-seven AL Championship Series, which begins Tuesday.
"I tell you, there's a lot of people that put in a lot of time to get us where we're at," Percival said. "It's real exciting for all of the guys that have been in this organization, for Jackie Autry and Gene Autry."
Happy Trails, indeed.
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com and can be reached at
email@example.com. This story was not subject to the approval of MLB or its clubs.