ANAHEIM -- Brendan Donnelly can’t believe it’s been 17 years.
On a team filled with unlikely characters and unbelievable moments, it was Donnelly’s rise from an unknown Minor League journeyman to an elite reliever during the run to the 2002 World Series title that had Angels fans hailing him as a cult hero.
With his intensity, signature goggles and a gold chain he bought when he signed his first professional contract in 1992, Donnelly quickly became a fan favorite.
It was the year of thunder sticks and the emergence of the Rally Monkey -- and one Donnelly will never forget.
“The fans were incredible,” Donnelly said. “I had a Minor League life -- and we don't have fans in the Minor Leagues. So it was, you know, amazing. The fans helped us through so many tough situations.”
Donnelly, now 48 and spending time with his family in Gilbert, Ariz., after retiring from baseball in 2011, joked that he knows why the fans really took to him.
“Once I took those glasses off, I was so unrecognizable outside the field and it was perfect,” Donnelly said. “They just thought I was another big fat guy. That's probably why they liked me. 'If he can do it, I can do it.' Cheeseburgers and Coors Lights, and let's get 'em out."
After bouncing around the Minors and independent ball for 10 seasons -- including participating as a replacement player with the Reds during Spring Training in 1995 -- Donnelly signed a Minor League deal with the Angels before the 2001 season.
After posting a combined 6.07 ERA in 46 outings at Triple-A with the Blue Jays' and Cubs' organizations the prior year, the 6-foot-3, 205-pounder was running short on options at 29 years old. So he signed with the Angels and began the season with Double-A Arkansas.
“It was my only opportunity to work,” Donnelly said. “No one else was going to give me a chance to even play in the Minor Leagues. And that was my only offer. I was the oldest Double-A player in [the] history of the world.”
Things began to click for Donnelly, however, as he posted a combined 2.43 ERA with 87 strikeouts in 70 1/3 innings between Arkansas and Triple-A Salt Lake that year. He didn't get called up that September, but earned a Major League invitation to Spring Training in 2002.
But even with that opportunity, Donnelly had no idea what would be in store for him and the Angels that season.
“I had no expectations, because I’d never even been in big league camp,” Donnelly said. “But my expectation was just to play another season and keep a uniform on my back. I didn't have any expectations to be in the big leagues. There were times with my 10 years in the Minors, [I thought] I’d never make the big leagues. That’s just being honest.”
Getting the call
Donnelly didn’t make the team out of Spring Training. But with closer Troy Percival on the injured list early in the year, Donnelly made his Major League debut on April 9, 2002, at 30 years and 279 days old.
The right-hander gave up three runs (two earned) in one inning against the Mariners at Angel Stadium in his first appearance, but followed that with two scoreless outings before being sent back down. He was called up again for three games in mid-June, when Percival was injured again. Donnelly finally stuck after he was recalled for a third time on July 13.
“Basically, every time Percy got hurt, I got a chance,” Donnelly said. “But I kept going back to Triple-A because he kept getting healthy.”
The turning point came during a July series against the Mariners, when Donnelly came in and struck out Edgar Martinez and Bret Boone on back-to-back nights on July 20-21. That’s when Donnelly stopped just being happy to be in the big leagues and realized he could have success at the highest level.
“I still recall it vividly,” Donnelly said. “After that second night, that's when I knew that I [had a chance and I thought I belonged] here. That was the first time I really thought I belonged.”
After his final callup, Donnelly posted a 1.49 ERA in 42 1/3 innings -- finishing his unlikely rookie season with a 2.17 ERA and 54 strikeouts in 49 2/3 frames. He was a major part of a bullpen that had the best ERA in the American League.
Just like Donnelly, the Angels were a Cinderella story, bouncing back from a 6-14 start to win 99 games and earn a spot in the postseason as the AL Wild Card team. The club had so few players with playoff experience, Donnelly remembers they didn’t even know how to celebrate when they clinched their spot in the postseason with a win over the Rangers in Game 159 on Sept. 26.
“I remember we clinched in Texas, and we came into the clubhouse and everybody looked at each other like, ‘What do we do?’” Donnelly said. “I think one of the veterans just said, 'Let’s just do what they do on TV.' We didn’t know. We were half in shock.”
The run to the World Series
The Angels first had to face the 103-win Yankees, who had been in the World Series in four straight years and five of the previous six seasons. Despite dropping the opener, the Angels won the series in four games -- with Donnelly picking up a hold in Game 2, striking out John Vander Wal.
“It was the mighty Yankees -- nobody gave us a chance on paper,” Donnelly said. “But we had played there in September and took two of three. So when we came into the stadium and walked on the field, Percival said, ‘Hey, this is the same stadium. They just have more bunting up.’ And that kind of allowed us to just breathe and just do what we do."
The next series against the Twins was similar, in that the Angels lost the first game, only to roar back and win the next four -- powered by Adam Kennedy’s incredible three-homer performance in Game 5. Donnelly picked up holds in Games 2 and 5.
“We lost Game 1, but again, we didn’t know any better,” Donnelly said. “We just kept playing. You can’t under-use the word 'team' when it came to that team.”
Donnelly posted a 10.13 ERA in his first six postseason appearances, but it was about to turn for the better with his memorable showing in the World Series against the Giants.
A World Series title, at long last
The 2002 World Series was one of the most back-and-forth affairs over the last 20 years, and Donnelly played a major role in helping the Angels win it in seven games. Donnelly appeared in five games -- all but Games 2 and 4 -- throwing 7 2/3 scoreless innings.
Again, the Angels lost Game 1, only to recover and win the Series. Their hopes appeared to be over in Game 6, when they were down by five runs entering their half of the seventh inning. Scott Spiezio closed the gap to two with a three-run shot off Felix Rodriguez. Donnelly was brought in to start the eighth to keep the game close.
“I don't care what anyone says -- that game, we were all thinking, 'This is probably over,'” Donnelly said. “Someone was going to have to do something special.”
Despite walking Benito Santiago to open the inning, Donnelly got through a scoreless frame. He felt he was helped by throwing his first pitch inside to Santiago -- a pitch that didn’t make the television broadcast, but elicited a standing ovation from the crowd.
It set the stage for an epic comeback by the Angels, with Darin Erstad opening their half of the eighth with a homer off Tim Worrell and Troy Glaus ripping a two-run double to give the Halos a lead they wouldn't relinquish. It gave Donnelly the win in Game 6.
“Game 6 was really the turning point,” Donnelly said. “I pitched in that inning before we scored, so I technically got the win. But it was a team win. You know, basically going into Game 7, we knew we were going to win as long as we showed up to the park.”
That collective confidence paid off in the decisive final game, with rookie John Lackey throwing five strong innings before handing things over to Donnelly.
Donnelly got through two scoreless frames with the Angels up by three runs, and it was up to rookie sensation Francisco Rodriguez and Percival to shut the Giants down.
“I remember coming out of the game and then being able to look around and breathe, knowing I'm done,” Donnelly said. “And I was terrified for everybody else now, because I looked at the stadium moving. It was loud. I was like, 'I don't know how the hell I did that. And now I don't know how they're going to finish it. Now, we have two innings to go and now I'm scared to death.' It was a nerve-wracking roller coaster, for sure.”
K-Rod and Percival were able to close the door, giving the Angels their first World Series title and their only one to date. It was pure elation for Angels players, who couldn’t believe what they had accomplished. And for Donnelly, it was validation that he belonged -- even as someone who wasn’t allowed to be in the MLB Players’ Union because he was a former replacement player.
“For me, personally, as a guy who never thought he’d spend a day in the big leagues, I was able to just walk into something so special and win the whole thing with those guys,” Donnelly said. “They took me [in]. I had some back-history to me, and they accepted it. After I had told my story in a team meeting, Jarrod Washburn took me aside and told me, ‘You’re with us.’ So that group of guys, there was no pointing fingers. Winning with those guys is something I carry with me as one of the proudest moments of my life."