World champions open new MLB season

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 30, 2003

ANAHEIM, Calif. - Baseball picks up right where it left off last fall, in Anaheim, with John Lackey on the mound for the Angels before a lively crowd bearing ThunderStix - and more than a barrel full of Rally Monkeys.

The World Series champion Angels and Texas Rangers start the season on Sunday, a day ahead of everyone else. The originally scheduled opening series in Tokyo between Seattle and Oakland was called off because of the war in Iraq.

Angels fans will get their first chance to cheer defending champions.

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''It's going to be new territory for everybody. I think it's going to be tough to re-create that feeling, but I think that the excitement among the fans is very evident, just from walking down the street and talking to people,'' Darin Erstad said. ''They're very excited about the season and they feel like we do. They want to do it again.''

The Angels beat the San Francisco Giants 4-1 in Game 7 of the World Series last Oct. 27 to win the first title in the club's 42-year history. Lackey started the game and became the first rookie to win a World Series Game 7 since Babe Adams in 1909.

The lineup for Anaheim, which finished four games back of AL West champion Oakland but earned a wild-card berth last season, is unchanged. The Angels made no major moves during the offseason, satisfied to stay with the same group that won a club-record 99 games during the regular season.

The Angels then beat the New York Yankees and Minnesota to reach the World Series.

Texas, which went 72-90 last year, has made significant changes. The Rangers fired manager Jerry Narron, hired Buck Showalter to replace him and didn't re-sign catcher Ivan Rodriguez.

Showalter sends Ismael Valdes to the mound against his former teammates.

''This is going to be special,'' the pitcher said. ''I know these guys pretty well. I played with most of them.''

Showalter, expected to boost Texas from its recent run of mediocrity, is eager to get started against the Angels.

''We know they'll be challenging for the championship again. Win, lose or draw, it's an honor to represent major league baseball and play them in the season opener,'' Showalter said. ''No matter how much you try to downplay it as just another game, that there are 161 games after it, it's still hard to ignore all the bells and whistles associated with the game. Plus, we get to see their rings while we're there.''

Commissioner Bud Selig won't give the Angels their World Series rings until Tuesday, when they play the Rangers again.

Ceremonies before Sunday's game include a moment of silence in honor of American military personnel, a Navy flyover and the championship flag-raising by Jackie Autry, widow of former team owner Gene Autry. She will be joined by Angels fan Tom Amberry and right fielder Tim Salmon.

''It's something that a lot of people have been waiting for a long time, and I've just been blessed to have been a part of the club that was able to do that,'' Salmon said. ''I've never been a part of a team that could say it was the best.''

Mike Scioscia will be presented with the AL Manager of the Year Award and will throw out the ceremonial first pitch to his 14-year-old son, Matthew.

Lackey got the starting assignment because Jarrod Washburn hurt his shoulder in a spring training collision and wasn't able to get in enough work during the exhibition season. Washburn is scheduled to start the Angels' fifth game of the season, on Saturday.

''It's really kind of unfortunate because Washburn deserves the opening day start because of his year,'' Lackey said. ''He was our leader and our ace last year, but things didn't quite work out and he's not quite where he needs to be for that. Hopefully, he'll get back in the rotation soon and we'll be back at full strength.''