Long before first pitch, a cowboy hat is set behind the bat rack and under three rows of cubbyholes housing helmets in the Angels dugout.
White with black trim, the hat is inconspicuous, nothing special until something special makes it special.
When an Angels player returns to the dugout after hitting a home run, a teammate slaps the cowboy hat onto his head and he bounces triumphantly from one end to the other, slapping hands and bumping fists.
Mike Trout enjoyed the ritual in the third inning of the Angels’ 4-1 win over the Cleveland Guardians on Tuesday night at Angel Stadium, blasting a two-run home run to left field. Trout also had an RBI double, providing plenty of support for left-hander Patrick Sandoval, who extended to 15 innings his streak of not giving up an earned run this season by yielding two hits over seven innings.
Sandoval, a Mission Viejo High product, struck out nine and walked one, displaying a devastating changeup and command of four pitches. He hopped off the mound with glee after prompting Oscar Mercado to flail at his changeup to end the seventh inning on his 90th and final pitch.
The Angels entered the game with more homers than any team in baseball besides the Toronto Blue Jays, providing many opportunities to cowboy up in the dugout. The hat routine is every bit as goofy as other home run celebrations across baseball.
This one, though, conjures delightful historical context — even if many of the current Angels are unaware of it.
Moments after the Angels won Game 7 of the 2002 World Series, outfielder Tim Salmon held a cowboy hat to the sky to honor team founder and owner and legendary country crooner Gene Autry. The Angels had finally kept their promise to “Win One for the Cowboy” even though he’d died in 1998.
The Angels staged a cowboy hat giveaway at a home game against the Texas Rangers in 2012. The sellout crowd of 39,013 set a Guinness World Record for the “largest gathering of people wearing cowboy hats.”
The current iteration of western headgear was the brainchild of Angels staff assistant Tim Buss, whom manager Joe Maddon affectionately refers to as the Vice President of Stuff.
“This is all Tim Buss,” Maddon said. “Bussy is our creative genius and he came up with it. . . I love it.”
So do fans. Patty Konrad of Garden Grove broke out a vintage Rally Monkey, topped it with a plastic cowboy hat and hung it on the rail in front of her Row A seat in the Terrace MVP section above the Angels’ on-deck circle.
Players have bought in as well. On the last day of the season’s first homestand, Tyler Wade put the hat on Anthony Rendon’s head after a home run. Rendon is from Texas, so it made some sense.
The Angels visited the Rangers two days later and Brandon Marsh slapped it on Trout’s head after a home run. The fun has taken off from there — Texas or no Texas — with everyone from Shohei Ohtani during his two-home-run game April 15 to Wade during his two-home-run game Monday donning the hat and galloping through the dugout. Giddy-up!
Not that the players grasp the role cowboy hats have played in Angels lore, such as it is.
“They are too young to remember any of that,” Maddon said. “But they are reminded nightly through our scoreboard montage.
“I’m a Mr. Autry fan. Mrs. [Jackie] Autry, I still stay in touch with her. She sends me a Christmas gift every year. Mr. Autry would come into the clubhouse with his cowboy hat and cane. It was special. But honestly I don’t think this generation has any connection.”
The only way the 2022 Angels (11-7) could truly connect with the 2002 edition would be to win a World Series, or at least win a postseason series for the first time since 2009. For now, they are pleased to be four games above .500 this early in the season, getting solid pitching from four of their six starters and several relievers and displaying enough power to give their dugout a frequent western flavor.