Return of the Hack: The Halo Effect

Mike Scioscia has managed the Angels since 2000
Mike Scioscia has managed the Angels since 2000

Officially hired in 1999, Mike Scioscia is currently the longest tenured manager in all of Major League Baseball, and it really isn’t even close. Outside of Ron Gardenhire (with the Twins since 2002), Scioscia has five years on the rest of the field. Armed with a strong cache of talent, a rabid sports market and an owner desperate to usurp Southern California from the Dodgers, he has had a strong run of success. But, most of that came in his first ten years at the helm. Since losing the 2009 ALCS to the Yankees, things have turned a bit sour, despite helming a roster loaded with All Star talent.

Since their great 1986 season and prior to the dawn of the new millennium, Angels Stadium had remained dormant in the fall; always closing up shop come October. There was one blip on the radar in 1995, when the then California Angels dominated the AL West into August, opening up an 11-game lead as the month started. And even though they started to slump a bit, they still sat six games up on Seattle on September 12 and looked to be headed for their first playoff berth in ten years. And then, it happened. The Angels couldn’t get out of their own way and over a seven-day stretch they blew that lead and sat tied with the surging Mariners on the morning of September 20. The Angels continued to sink, falling three games back. However, they somehow righted the ship over the last week and after game 162, the two teams sat tied atop the division. On October 2, Randy Johnson stepped onto the Kingdome mound and twirled a complete game gem, leading to a dominating 9-1 win that sealed California’s collapse. Despite the collapse, the Angels retained manager Marcel Lachemann and hoped they could shake off the stank of failure and bounce back the next season. They didn’t. A little over two thirds of the way to a last place finish, Lachemann was fired, replaced by John McNamara (28 games) and Joe Maddon (22 games). The Angels seemingly didn’t know what they had in Maddon (now the successful manager of the Tampa Bay Rays), as he did not get the full time gig for 1997. Instead, the team looked to completely retool their image. They officially updated their team name from California to Anaheim and changed their logo from the beloved haloed “A” to the gaudy bright-blue angel wing. They hired Terry Collins to head the team and started to turn things around with back-to-back second place finishes behind strong iconic Seattle squads, which was nothing to be ashamed of.

Heading into 1999, expectations were growing in Anaheim. Returning a rotation led by Chuck Finley, the Angels made a major free agent splash by signing Red Sox slugger Mo Vaughn to add to a lineup led by Garret Anderson, Tim Salmon and the emerging Troy Glaus. However, once again, those expectations were slaughtered by reality. Vaughn struggled to stay healthy and saw his numbers dip across the board. The team struggled, but stayed tangentially in the race through the All Star break. From there, things fell apart and they quickly sunk to fourth place, finishing 25 games out of first. Collins was canned along the way and Maddon again got 19 games to prove himself. For the second time, the team did not hire from inside and instead looked to the system of their SoCal brethren, hiring away Dodgers coach Mike Scioscia from the Dodgers system. Scioscia had spent his entire career with the Dodgers; drafted as a first round pick in 1976, he debuted in 1980 and caught in LA for 12 years.  After unsuccessfully trying to catch on with another team over the following two seasons, he finally hung up the cleats and rejoined LA as a coach in 1994, with the team staying loyal to their All-Star catcher. He would build up his reputation as a tactician and was an interesting name on the rise when the Angels decided to take a chance and bring him on board. In what would prove to be a shrewd move, Scioscia retained Maddon as his bench coach. The team continued to struggle over the next two years but it was clear they were rebuilding the franchise and slowly starting to clean house.

By the time the 2002 season kicked off the powder blue uniforms had been laid to rest and the vintage halo had returned. Vaughn was now gone and the team had gotten younger, with only two every-day starters over 30 years old in stalwarts Anderson and Salmon. The pitching staff had also solidified, led by Ramon Ortiz and Jarrod Washburn, two players entering their prime years, and backed by steady veterans Aaron Sele and Kevin Appier along with emerging rookie John Lackey. The bullpen was nails as well, with closer Troy Percival (40 saves) leading the way. They were also given a boost of adrenaline late in the season when flame throwing reliever Francisco Rodriguez burst onto the scene and pitched to a 0.00 ERA and a 20.9 k/9(!) over five appearances. That performance earned him a spot on the postseason roster, Anaheim’s first in sixteen years. After winning 99 regular season games and coming into the postseason as the Wild Card, Anaheim stared down the dominant dynasty New York Yankees and slugged them in the mouth, winning the offensive orgy of a series in four games. Just defeating the Yankees was impressive enough, but the way they smacked around the Yankee pitching staff, teeing off on aces Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte and David Wells, was impossible to fathom at the time. The steam train rolled on against the upstart Minnesota Twins in the ALCS, a team that had also snapped a playoff drought that season. Anaheim finished off the Twins in five games and headed to an all-California World Series, squaring off against the loaded San Francisco Giants, led by the amazing Barry Bonds. Many assumed the Giants would march through the Angels and finally get Bonds his elusive ring. As the series ebbed and flowed, it was clear Anaheim was not going to roll over for their neighbors to the north. Even when things looked bleak, the Angels did not waiver. Down three games to two heading into Game Six, the Angels were looking at a 5-0 hole as they batted in the seventh inning. The series looked over and Bonds and his boys were ready to crack the champagne. The Angels had other ideas, scoring six runs across two innings and stealing the game when Percival slammed the door. Game Seven was never in doubt as John Lackey was dominant in shutting down the mighty Giants, giving the Angels their first World Series Championship. That off-season, while the Angels celebrated the title, more change was in the air for the franchise.

In April 2003, business magnate Arte Moreno stepped in and bought the franchise from Walt Disney. He immediately stepped up and began making changes, slashing ticket and concession prices in attempt to challenge the Dodgers and steal away the lucrative Southern California market. After sagging back to third place thanks to a championship hangover and strong Seattle and Oakland teams, the Angels looked to make an off-season splash, something that would become a Moreno hallmark. They would ink coveted slugger Vladimir Guerrero and ride his bat to the playoffs again in 2004 (lost in ALDS to Boston) and 2005 (lost in ALCS to Chicago). In between those two seasons, Moreno’s hostile takeover plan continued as he branded the team as the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Also, after the 2005 ALCS loss, Joe Maddon was hired as manager of the Tampa Bay Rays. Many wondered if the loss of Maddon would affect Scioscia’s in-game managing. The team would continue to spend money on free agents, from both outside and within the team. After a year off, the Angels made three consecutive playoff appearances, all ending with disappointment. The worst collapse came in 2008, when the Angels won 100 games but once again bowed out to the Red Sox in the ALDS. A year later, they finally excised their demons and knocked the Sox out of the playoffs but ran into a loaded Yankee team in the ALCS, losing in six games. That final loss in the Bronx would be the last playoff action the Angels would see as of the time this is being written.

The lack of postseason play has yet to slow Moreno’s bankroll as the team continues to try to spend their way back into contention. Two years ago they shook all of baseball by inking aging All-World slugger Albert Pujols to a mammoth ten-year contract. They also signed free agent pitcher CJ Wilson, pushing their chips all in. After a slow start to 2012, they promoted wunderkind Mike Trout, who destroyed the league and put everyone on notice at age 20, and traded for ace Zack Greinke. All those moves still weren’t enough, as the team saw another third-place finish behind the consistent Texas Rangers and the amazing Oakland A’s, who operated at a fraction of LA’s payroll. So after 2012, Arte went back to the bank and splurged on the best free agent bat on the market, Josh Hamilton. Pairing Hamilton along with Pujols and Trout just seemed unfair, however, with Greinke leaving as a free agent and ace Jered Weaver experiencing dips in his velocity, the Angels’ rotation was not in good shape. As we near the 2013 All-Star Break, the high-priced Angels are sputtering once again, sitting 11 games under .500 and 11 games out of first place with only pathetic Houston keeping them out of the cellar.

As another season seems to be slipping away, many fans and pundits are turning their heads to Scioscia and starting to examine the cracks that have been forming over the last handful of years. Even when the team was dominating the division, they seemingly always underperformed come playoff time. That World Series title occurred 11 years ago and the trophy case has been barren since, with not even one AL Pennant added to it. Another criticism levied against Scioscia is his obsession with defensive catchers, even if it means a sacrificing of offense. There were times in years past when Scioscia would run light hitting Jeff Mathis out behind the plate because he loved how he called a game and defended the plate. This clash in philosophies came to a head when burly slugging backstop Mike Napoli was shipped up to Toronto after the 2010 campaign. Napoli was brutal behind the dish but could mash with the best of them. Imagine if the Angels still had his bat and penchant for driving in runs in a lineup that is looking increasingly top heavy? That would look a lot better than Chris Iannetta’s anemic slash line of .216/.367/.358, but hey at least they have a guy gunning down base-stealers at a 9% clip! At the end of the day, it may not matter anyway. Sometimes both a team and a player just need a change. It just happens. Joe Torre is a Hall of Fame manager that won four World Titles and two additional pennants in New York City and his tenure lasted 11 years before both sides became worn out, with blame to be laid at the feet of both parties. The divorce was barely finalized before Torre was relaxing on the beaches of Southern California after taking over the reins of the Dodgers. And, following the path forged by Torre, maybe we see history repeat itself with Scioscia.

Mike Scioscia has only known two franchises in his lengthy professional career, which demonstrates a high level of loyalty from both the team and player, and both exist within 40 miles of each other. However, loyalty can be fleeting when success is MIA, and when a high priced, aging team under-performs, it is usually the manager that eats the bullet (ask Terry Francona about that one). Scioscia has nimbly dodged those bullets for a while now, but by the time the 2013 champion raises that trophy, the loyal warhorse may finally be put down by Moreno for good. However, even if he is run out of town, Scioscia may not have to look far for his next job because there is another overpaid, aging, under-achieving team down the road that may be beckoning him to return home. Loyalty is hell of a thing.