Watching the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in Baseball Purgatory
There are only a handful of teams in baseball worse than the Angels, but none of those bummer-squads are quite as dreary, doomed, and limbo-bound.
Photo by Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
Teams across baseball have recently had to perform self-appraisals, deciding whether they were good enough to pursue this fall's postseason or if they were better served by retooling for the future. With two wild-card teams in each league and any team around .500 having at least some claim to a shot at October, these choices get tough.
For better or worse, this is by design: the season is built to keep teams relevant and games meaningful as deep into summer as possible. This means that decision-makers have to be bolder, in one way or the other. Going all-in means expressing confidence that your team can fight off a half-dozen or more competing postseason hopefuls; giving up on the season and getting to work on the next requires a pragmatic, unsentimental approach that is, in some basic sense, antithetical to the way most people care about sports.
One team spared from this ulcerous process is the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Despite having the best player in baseball on the roster, as well as a half-dozen other names recognizable even to casual fans, the Angels sit 20.5 games back of the American League West lead, and are locks to miss the postseason for the seventh time in eight years.
Where in seasons past the brilliance of Mike Trout has been enough to keep them in the playoff hunt through September—and in 2014 was enough to carry them to a division series, where they were promptly swept by the Kansas City Royals—this season was instantly and decisively without hope. Their rotation is overmatched, their lineup top-heavy and inflexible, and their payroll maxed out for the foreseeable future. They were on course for 85 losses from Opening Day, and in that respect and that respect only they are living up to their promise.
Bad teams can be fun, though, and if you squint really hard, you can see in the Angels the outline of a team you might want to spend three hours watching play. There's Trout, of course, who is just a shade better at baseball than anyone else presently playing the game. And there is Albert Pujols, who used to be exactly that good. And there's Andrelton Simmons, as fine a defensive shortstop as anyone, and also Jered Weaver, the avant-garde cross-firer with a fastball slower than ones being thrown at your local high school field. The mix has enough weirdness and odd brilliance that it ought to be agreeable enough.
But if you actually sit down to watch the Angels, your mind will revolt. It will beg you for mercy; it will ask, Say, doesn't the fridge need cleaning? It will point your eyes straight at the nearest wall, whose blankness is a welcome respite from Angels baseball.
This is because the Angels, despite the strains of notoriety and honest-to-goodness ability running through parts of their roster, are baseball's most un-fun bunch. There are worse teams, but also there are none lousier. You don't need proof of this; you know it from the fact that an Angels game on your TV instinctively sends your hand spasming in the direction of the remote or your eyelids slamming shut. Anyone who's watched these Angels for even a moment knows they're dismal. What's more interesting is why they're such a bummer, and what that tells us about the worst configurations of a good sport.
Seven teams currently have as many or more losses than the Angels. They include the Minnesota Twins, who lost their first nine games of 2016, and the Tampa Bay Rays, who have completed their return trip to the AL East cellar, and the Atlanta Braves, who have pulled off the neat trick of combining league-pacing incompetence with one of the more cynical stadium-finance swindles in recent memory. All of these bad teams are more pleasant to watch than the Angels. They feature franchise cornerstones fading but doing so admirably, or young players finding their footing, or at least a rebuild so daunting that there's some existential heft to it. They can be enjoyed, if not quite admired.
The Angels, on the other hand, are designed to ward off good vibes of every ilk. Think of the things they do that baseball fans might take pleasure in. Trout gets a low fastball, sizes it up, and with a dialed-in thwack sends it humming over the centerfield wall? He's wasting away his prime doing so in a five-run loss for a fourth-place team. Pujols gets a hanging curveball and serves it out to left? He rounds the bases like he's wearing a knapsack full of bricks, reminding everyone that the wait between homers will only get longer from here. Simmons tracks a ball in the hole, gloves it, and whistles it across the diamond, and then the next three batters hit clean doubles.
The trick to the Angels' misery lies in their ability to separate every situation from the setting that would make it palatable. The effect is so complete that it feels almost purposeful, as if the team expressly set out in search of worst-case scenarios. Were he still in St. Louis, this same faded Pujols would have a backlog of goodwill; in Anaheim he's a bad investment rusting over in public. Now that Trout has settled in as a dynamo, no longer ascendant but cruising along at league-best clips year after year, he has no narrative to attach to his otherworldly skill; he just sort of hangs out until his team gets better or he gets to leave. Weaver might make for a cheery curiosity as a long reliever somewhere, livening up six-run games with his side-armed slowball, but instead he goes out every fifth day to get shelled.
Even Tim Lincecum, designated for assignment earlier this month, looked in his short time as an Angel like someone who had seen the true face of gloom. Gone was the sentimental favorite who threw no-hitters even as his Cy Young–quality skill left him, and in his place was a wrung-out sadsack with a perpetually hung head. This all unfolds in a park whose distinguishing characteristic is a bunch of Styrofoam-looking fake rocks behind the outfield wall, for a team whose ridiculous geographic designation only distances it from both the L.A. glitz it was meant to connote and the Orange County otherness that is its actuality.
It's hokey but true: baseball thrives on hope, and it will look hard to find it. The lack of a clock, the blank slate of Opening Day—all these hoary tropes really do get at something real about the game. In Minnesota, young outfielder Max Kepler hones an even swing while Joe Mauer reaches base twice a game. In Tampa, Chris Archer tries to harness one of the best sliders around. In Atlanta, Freddie Freeman is still out there doing his best.
But in Anaheim, specifics don't matter. You might look at the roster and see a mishmash, a total lack of unifying characteristics, but that's not exactly right. Everybody there plays for the Angels, which means everybody there is stuck, going backwards if they're going anywhere at all. It's a long season, yes, but some seasons are longer than others.
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