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Eldest Angel Salmon hits stride

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By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 21, 2002

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Even Angels grow old.

Their knees hurt, their eyes fade and their hearts most definitely break.

Yet they are always around when hope is dim. They never give up when the hour grows late. Even the old among them knows when it's time to soar.

You have never seen a more precious Angel than Tim Salmon on Sunday night.

In the first World Series game ever won by the Angels, it was Salmon who provided the moment to remember.

It took one swing. One swing to complete the comeback. One swing to obscure so many years of falling short. One eighth-inning swing that provided a two-run homer and restored the faith of these Angels.

"That's something I've been dreaming about doing for a long time, and I've been watching it being done from the couch," Salmon said. "It was unbelievable."

He is 34 and no longer is the force he had been in the 1990s. His numbers have dipped and his body has creaked. His most pressing engagement after the Series is knee surgery.

Garret Anderson has taken over as Anaheim's cleanup hitter. David Eckstein has become the source upon which the team rallies.

Still, it was fitting that Salmon stood above the rest in Game 2. He came to the plate five times and the Giants never got him out.

"Tim's really gotten back into his groove," manager Mike Scioscia said. "He was, obviously, a major part of us being here. He got off to a little rough streak earlier, but he was big tonight."

Salmon hit two home runs, drove in four runs and scored three.

"There's a lot of things I'm not going to realize until later," Salmon said. "The biggest thing right now is geting the win. Whether I was the one to hit the home run or whatever, I'm just not thinking in those terms."

Before this October, Salmon had gone longer than any active player without reaching the postseason. He had put in 1,388 regular-season games without knowing the pleasure of baseball in the fall.

No Anaheim player has hit more home runs. None has driven in more runs. His was the face of a team best remembered for its shortcomings.

The franchise was so lost, it couldn't figure out where it belonged. It once was known as the Los Angeles Angels. Then the California Angels. Finally, they figured out they were the Anaheim Angels.

And, for the first 41 years, it never mattered.

By any name, these were fallen Angels.

Do you suppose they had heaven on their side in 1982? Or have you forgotten the team that was one game away from clinching the American League pennant, then lost three straight to Milwaukee in the ALCS.

Do you suppose anyone was looking out for them in 1986? Or have you forgotten the team that had a 5-2 ninth-inning lead and was one pitch away from clinching the AL pennant but eventually fell to Boston in the ALCS.

Their collapses in the 1990s were never quite as dramatic, but it did not make them any less painful.

For a club that knew so little about the postseason, the Angels could teach you a thing or two about heartbreak.

Salmon is the bridge. He has worn a halo longer than anyone else and he has endured more than anyone should. While others came and went, Salmon was Anaheim's only constant. He was not part of the previous postseason failures, but he has lived through September collapses.

He has seen teammates come and go. He has watched them move on to find glory elsewhere. He admits he, too, has thought about finding a new home.

But he is here still. And he is helping to change the image of a franchise. The Angels are only two games into their first World Series, but they have come far enough to change their legacy.

"Everything has been buried as far as those questions go," Salmon said. "There's only a few guys out here that are aware of those ghosts. Sometimes, it's just being naive.

"The focus can be on here, the now, the future, rather than the past."

Comebacks are supposed to be rare. They are supposed to be treasured. They are not supposed to be expected.

So how do you explain the way these Angels live on?

Anaheim won 99 games in the regular season and came from behind in 43. The Angels won 22 games in their final at-bat.

Maybe this is why it took a moment for Salmon to react to his moment. He gave just a short pump of the fist before he rounded the bases. It was not until he reached the dugout that Salmon showed real emotion.

He shouted, he slapped hands, then he emerged for a curtain call to shake his fists at the crowd.

"I tell these young guys every day to just appreciate this. Make the most of it," Salmon said. "That's the biggest thing. That's been my motto. Just make the most of it and let everything fly."

Even old Angels know how to fly.

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