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Angels fix their gaze on pennant race, don't fret over divine intervention


They might as well be the Washington Generals, the guys that nobody came to see when the Harlem Globetrotters were in town. The California Angels are here to break out of a lengthy slump -- they've lost nine straight and 12 of 13 -- and continue their surprising run for the American League West title, but they will be little more than scenery to the sellout crowds that pack Camden Yards tomorrow and Wednesday.

The Angels are one of the most watchable teams in baseball, with a youthful lineup that has terrorized AL pitching all season, but they know that everybody is coming to see Cal Ripken tie and break Lou Gehrig's "unbreakable" record for consecutive games. They also know that they'll have to work hard to remain focused on the importance of the series, even if it doesn't matter to anyone in the stands.

"That's not going to be a problem at all," said veteran Tony Phillips. "We're in a pennant race. That's more important to us."

Nevertheless, the Angels -- to a man -- feel fortunate that the schedule placed them in Baltimore this week. Ripken is a popular player throughout the major leagues and his record is one that is universally respected by his peers. They relish the chance to be involved in the record-tying and record-breaking games.

"Without a doubt," Phillips said. "That's something I'm not going to see again in my lifetime. It's an astonishing record. Being a player who has played pretty much every day for five or six years, I can see not only what kind of drive he has, but what kind of person he is. He makes me and every other everyday player look like a utility man."

Today is the last day before Ripken enters a new historical realm. It is the last day that anything could prevent him from at least getting a share of the record. The Angels are aware of that, but they insist that Ripken will get no special treatment if he steps between them and their ultimate goal -- the organization's first World Series.

"If it means winning the ballgame, I'm not going to ease up on him because of a personal goal," said designated hitter Chili Davis. "I wouldn't do anything dirty. I respect him too much as a player and a pro. But if it's first and third and it means a run, I'm going to go after him. I don't think he'd want anything less. Nobody helped him get this far. I don't think he needs any help getting the rest of the way."

Phillips agrees. Ripken has asked for no quarter during the first 2,128 games of the streak, and he isn't going to get any from the Angels, who are on the brink of their first playoff appearance since 1986.

"I'd go after his butt like I always do," Phillips said. "That's what he expects. I think he'd have less respect for you if you did anything else."

It isn't quite as clear-cut from the mound. Several top-name pitchers -- including Boston Red Sox ace Roger Clemens -- indicated last week that they would feel increasingly uncomfortable throwing the ball inside to Ripken as the record-breaking game approached. Left-hander Jim Abbott, who will face Jamie Moyer in the series opener today, may be the last opposing pitcher to hold the streak in his hand before Ripken ties the record.

"I haven't really thought about that to this point," Abbott said. "I don't know if that will crop up in my mind on Monday or not. I'll try to approach him the same way I always do. I think if you start thinking about something like that, it's like when someone tells you not to think about elephants. Then all you can think of are elephants.

"I'm going to approach him the way I would normally. He's a tough out. I think that's what he wants. I don't think he wants anybody to protect him . . . not that anybody would want to stand in the way of the record."

Abbott will be just like any other fan the following two nights. He has invited his father to Baltimore to see the game. Just about everyone on the Angels' roster will have friends and family in town for one of the biggest events in baseball history. Tickets may be impossible to come by outside the stadium, but the players have a pass list and they are taking full advantage of it.

"It's a special thing," Abbott said. "My dad's going to come and we're going to share a room for three days. To have him be able to share in it is really nice. We're just a small dot among all the people who want to see this happen, but it's going to be exciting. I'm going to be a fan."

Infielder Rex Hudler, who was drafted ahead of Ripken back in 1978, has brought his family and several friends. He played with the Orioles briefly in 1986 and is proud to be one of the long list of second basemen who have passed through Baltimore while Ripken has been at shortstop.

"It's meaningful to me because he and I both started playing ball the same year and I think we're the only ones from that draft who are still playing," Hudler said. "Hopefully, I'll get a chance to play."

It's even a thrill for Hall of Famer Rod Carew, who knows what it's like to chase one of baseball's "untouchable" standards. He came close to batting .400 in 1977 (finishing at .388) and finds it difficult to believe that there is some sentiment for Ripken to end the streak before Wednesday's game in a show of respect for Gehrig.

"When someone does something like this, you've got to be one of the little boys out there cheering him on," Carew said. "This is an amazing thing that he's doing. He has gone out there consistently for 14 years without fanfare and he has kept his performance at a very high level.

"Those people [who want him to stop] are sick people. Records are made for people to go out and break them. That's what sports is about -- putting up great numbers and then somebody coming along and trying to beat them. I think Gehrig would want this."

Chili Davis tried to picture himself in Ripken's situation and then came to the opposite conclusion, though it soon became clear that he was not taking the issue seriously.

"I think I'd tie the record and then sit down, but not as a tribute to anybody," he laughed. "Just because I hadn't had a day off in years."

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