The Anaheim Angels just completed an 86-win season. Just two years ago, they were one of the best teams in the American League with a 97-65 record, which was only surpassed by their 2008 campaign, most noted for an AL and franchise-best 100 wins.
These four seasons capture Tony Reagins' entire tenure in Anaheim. He "resigned" from his position as General Manager after the Angels failed to make the playoffs for the second straight year, preceded by two seasons with an AL West title, but without either an American League pennant or World Series championship. According to Tony, he felt that his performance was not up to the standards of what the Angels, and owner Arturo Moreno, demanded.
Reagins' brief career atop the Angels front office was populated by moves typical for a major market franchise. He made some big gambles in trading for players like Dan Haren, Scott Kazmir, Mark Teixiera and Vernon Wells, signing Torii Hunter, Fernando Rodney and Bobby Abreu while letting franchise players like Francisco Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero and John Lackey walk in free agency. Some of these plans worked out, some didn't, but regardless, Reagins didn't get Anaheim any closer to a championship.
And that's what Anaheim baseball is. They play for pennants and championships, not for pyrrhic victories like 100-win seasons or ERA titles. They win often, expect excellence and demand nothing less. Arturo Moreno is a man who extends his staff and fans all the luxuries money can buy, which ranges from the finest training facilities to cheap stadium beers to $81 million dollar contracts. In return, he holds everyone under him accountable against the standards that George Steinbrenner, Walter O'Malley and John Henry hold their people to; winning, and winning big. The Angels and Moreno have spent an unconscionable amount of money buying everything they could ever need to win a title, and in doing so, have created an ideal that usually takes decades to earn - the highest standards of winning in professional athletics, set forth by those great men I just named. By the grace of Moreno and dignity by which he runs his organization, the Angels have joined the upper echelon of elite Major League Baseball clubs. When you mention the great franchises of the league, you cannot exclude Anaheim from the discussion. They are amongst the Red Sox, Yankees, Cardinals, Giants and Twins where the expectations are highest and the glory greatest. The Angels have become an organization that has trumped any sense of cross-town rivalry I might have been brought up with, and has morphed into a club that has earned my utmost respect. They have become the Los Angeles Dodgers.
I live in New York City. I meet scores of rightfully braggadocios Yankee fans and downtrodden defensive Mets fans every week. Much like the Rangers, Islanders or Devils of the NHL. I understand that there is a geographical reasoning as to where their baseball and hockey allegiances lie. With football season in full swing, I have come to understand the difference between the blue-collar Jets fans and the white-collar Giants fans. The point is that I have to ask. There is no assumed answer. "Jets/Giants? Rangers/Islanders/Devils? Yankees/Mets?". It's still amazing to me that a seemingly innocuous question like that can paint such a vivid snapshot of the life you've led.
In the rare occasion that the conversation gets going a bit, I'll get asked where my sports allegiances lie. It used to be that the conversation would start and end when I'd respond with "I grew up in Los Angeles".
"Oh, okay. Obviously Dodgers, Lakers...and you guys still don't have a football team still, right?".
(Though there are two Los Angeles NBA franchises, I truthfully have never ever met a truly dedicated, hardcore Clippers fan in my life. I am under the opinion that they do not exist, and even if they did, those morlocks are never allowed out of the sewers where they dwell during daylight hour)
There was only one Los Angeles baseball squad. There was no need to clarify my baseball allegiance after answering the query "Where are you from?". A small, slightly arrogant smile would creep up from the corners of my face. There was a small sense of satisfaction I'd get from not having to answer the question. My hometown spoke for itself and I took pride in the fact that my teams were so inexorably attached to my town as much as I were attached to them. I wanted my alliances identified to me with the least amount of words possible - as if the extra words I didn't have to say elevated me above the jokers that had to clarify further.
But something changed. Over the past couple years, I'd still get that same line of questions, "Oh, you're a sports fan? What do you follow? Oh yeah? Where are you from?", which would inevitably turned into the assumed, standard Los Angeleno answer. Or so I thought.
"Okay - so Dodgers or Angels?".
The first time I was asked this, I acted as if someone had asked me "what would you prefer to drink? This orange juice or a cup of urine-laced bleach?". I was absolutely befuddled. Recoiled with disgust and disbelief, these words came out of my sneered mouth "...Dodgers. Dodgers. I'm from LA". I couldn't grasp that such an outrageous question has been thrown at me. Angels or Dodgers? It felt like more of an accusatory barb than anything else. I grew up in the cradle of the San Fernando Valley, the hottest pit of suburbia the City of Angels could possibly muster from the underskirt of the gorgeous seaside and the Santa Monica mountains. I didn't grow up in Anaheim, or West Covina, or Irvine. I never had my brow shadowed by the depressing glare of the Orange Curtain. Why would anyone ask me that question? Of course I'm a Dodgers fan. I'm from Los Angeles.
Growing up, the California (and then Disney-owned Anaheim) Angels were the laughing stock of Southern California sports. Between their ALCS appearance in 1986 and their World Series title in 2002, the Angels made zero post-season appearances. In fact, they won over half their games only three times, with their high water mark of 91 wins coming in 1989. As the California Angels, the team barely had an identity. Playing in a rundown stadium in a still commercially under-developed Disneyland-centric Anaheim, the Angels seemed farther away than the mere 30 miles that separated them from Downtown Los Angeles. They barely made it into the periphery of media attention. They were a terrible team, with news coverage limited to the daily line score.
Have you ever seen the movie Angels in the Outfield? If not, you either didn't have a childhood or you're older than 35. So let me refresh you.
Roger, played by the now ubiquitous Joseph-Gordon Levitt, lives in a foster home, away from his absentee deadbeat father (played by a young and an incredibly sleazy looking Dermott Mulroney, who at the time was a cross between Sean Penn and a dead Sean Penn). On one of his dad's infrequent sojourns into town, Roger desperately asks him "Dad...when are we going to be a family again?". Roger's dad, in between lighting up a cigarette and firing up his motorcycle, looks at his son from behind his aviator sunglasses and sarcastically remarks "When the Angels win the pennant". From that point on, the movie focuses on Roger as he prays each and every day for angels to come down from heaven to help his living local sports tragedy to not only become more than just a punchline, but a championship contender.
Yes. The California Angels were so incredibly pitiful at the time, that a popular kids movie suggested that the only way for the Halos to EVER win a pennant was with help from GOD HIMSELF AND HIS ANGELS. In the time that the lengthy process of screenplay development, production, filming, editing, post-production, marketing and distribution occurred, the Angels still managed to remain terrible. The fact that this movie exists is all you need to know about how the Angels were perceived by a group of producers that were largely Los Angeles-based. I remember watching the movie as a 10 year-old and thinking "wow, those guys got it right. The Angels would need help from WINGED GUARDIANS MADE FROM THE HOLY HANDS OF GOD in order to compete!".
There was no choice growing up in Southern California. Even family friends born and bred in OC found themselves more connected to the Dodgers than a team that played major league games down the block from them. Even as the Angels made it to the ALCS 3 times between 1979 and 1986, the Dodgers also made 3 championship series, winning one World Series in the same time span. So even as the Angels brand was strongest, the grip that the Dodgers had over the SoCal sports scene could not be loosened, no matter what success was going on in Anaheim. Any baseball fan from the region over the age of 18 will tell you that while their heart bleeds for their disgraceful team, it still bleeds blue.
But any baseball fan has grown up with an e-mail address for the majority of their lives might not have that same connection.
Before the 2005 season, Arturo Moreno made his boldest move yet; changing the name of the Anaheim Angels to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. This of course was met with outrage from both sides - Dodgers fans for Moreno's temerity in claiming any type of affiliation with their city and Angels fans for not only fueling a 50 year-old little brother inferiority complex against their more famous sister-city to the north, but also for shuffling the name "Anaheim" to mere second-class status. Moreno's move, while not only reviled by both fans and rivals alike, was ridiculed across the country. Pundits railed on Moreno for seemingly abandoning the franchise's small-town roots and attempting to siphon brand-value from a source that was not theirs to claim. The city of Anaheim filed an injunction against Moreno, trying to reverse the name change on the grounds that it violated the terms of the organization's lease agreement at Angel Stadium. The Los Angeles Dodgers printed t-shirts in rebuttal with the phrase "The Los Angeles Dodgers of Los Angeles". I of course am a proud owner of one of those t-shirts.
What was lost in the initial uproar was that Moreno's re-branding was a brilliant maneuver. Much like the Dodgers and Lakers had done for years in establishing a financial foothold in OC, the Angels were simply turning the tables on their brethren from the north. They had made their power move and it has paid off handsomely. Beginning with small changes (the "LAA" abbreviation in the box score), the Angels slowly positioned themselves as a major player by aligning their brand with the nation's second biggest market. Moreno, a former advertising executive, had stubbornly wedged in his team in the forefront of the once thought impervious Los Angeles professional sports scene. The war of perception had begun in earnest when the Angels won the 2002 World Series over the perennial scourge San Francisco Giants. But now billboards, television commercials and newspaper ads in the LA Times began to permeate the county.
Most importantly, all of this maneuvering was done in conjunction with Moreno being able to back-up the perception and presence as a major market franchise with substantial capital. From Moreno's purchase of the Angels in 2003, the team has regularly had one of the largest payrolls in the league, has pursued the top free agents every off-season and stayed competitive with their amateur free-agent signings.
In just a few short years, Moreno had taken the Angels from an afterthought in the Los Angeles sports sphere, to not only one of the biggest local main attractions, but also as a major force on the national sports stage. Where there was once a time that Southern California and the nation could quite easily ignore the Angels, no longer does such a situation exist. The Angels fight in direct competition for the hearts and minds of the Los Angeles baseball fan. And I think that they're winning.
As much as I would like to, I cannot throw the responsibility for the dilution of the Dodgers brand at the feet of Frank McCourt. The loosening of what was once a iron-clad Dodger grip on Southern California began long before Frank so masterfully destroyed nearly the last strings of respect and dignity the franchise had dangling onto it's already emaciated bones. Years of mismanagement and poor personnel decisions have left the Dodgers as a shell of the successful team they once were. In the previous 10 seasons, the Angels have made the playoffs 6 times, with 3 ALCS appearances and one all-important World Series title. They have won 21 playoff games in that time period, in addition to being a perennial playoff contender in the rare occasion that they do not make the postseason.
The Dodgers have made the playoffs 4 times in that same span, winning only 9 playoff games and exactly zero world championships. The team has gone through 4 different managers while the Angels have had the steady former Dodgers Mike Scioscia at the helm, who I consider the best manager in all of professional North American sports. Most of all, the Dodgers have gone through one of the worst public relations disasters that has ever been seen in the history of the great game.
More than perhaps the losing records and dissatisfying ends to championship-caliber regular seasons, Frank McCourt and his underlings have done nothing but alienate the Dodgers fan-base and take advantage of one of the most loyal and hungry consumer markets in the country. When journalists point to the disarray of the franchise, McCourt seems all to ready to point to winning a mere 2 games in 2 years in the ALCS as a marker for success. Those two games didn't get us any closer to a championship that has gone missing for 23 seasons now. Ticket prices (up until two days ago) had continuously been hiked up, while promises involving stadium renovations, roster changes and draft pick signings have been continuously and egregiously broken. Frank McCourt, as has been extensively covered by this blog and everyone else in the baseball world, has put his pursuit of winning and competition as a secondary goal, always subordinate own personal gains. The customer seems to be a component of profit to him, rather than the reason for it. The last 8 years have been about how the Dodgers belong to Frank McCourt, rather than the Dodgers belonging to the people Los Angeles.
Everything I have just described is everything that Arte Moreno is not. He has endeared himself to a fanbase that had lived for 40 years as the bridesmaid to the trophies and honor that had been rightly earned by the O'Malley family in Chavez Ravine. He has gained the trust of his community by building the reputation of the team and organization from the ground up. He has made good on the promises he has made and infused his people to conduct themselves with the most amount of respect and commitment to excellence as humanly possible. Winning is the second-most important thing to Arturo Moreno. The most important? Making sure his constituents are having the best experience possible, not only at the ballpark, but as fans of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. As much as I'm sure Moreno is a highly competitive man who came from a meager and humble background, nothing about him or his tenure as owner suggests to me that he feels that he is more important than the institution he owns. I don't feel like Arte owns the Angels. I feel he is as much a part of it as anyone else who has a number on their jersey or wears a suit to go to work at the ballpark. Arturo Moreno is the polar opposite of Frank McCourt. And everything great about his ownership of the Angels and the way he runs that institution has only been accentuated by a man 30 miles away who has run his business completely paradoxically.
This used to be everything the Dodgers brand was. This was how Walter O'Malley and his family treated their fans and their business. You never felt like it was theirs to own, but rather that they merely had stewardship of an entity bigger and more important than any profit they could make. Moreno took more than just the brand name from the Los Angeles Dodgers - he took their way of doing business. The Angels have out-Dodgered the Dodgers.
It's been a couple years since I took offense to being asked "Dodgers or Angels?". Despite all other signs to the contrary, my arrogance (in that arena) has dimmed considerably. A lot has changed with both teams - as much trouble as I thought the team was in on the eve of the 2009 NLCS, the Dodgers are in far worse shape than I ever could have plausibly imagined. The divorce trial and subsequent bankruptcy have dragged my beloved team to the darkest depths of disgrace. Meanwhile, the Angels keep on chugging along each season, with nary a front office issue or scandal emanating from ownership. They continue to treat their fans right year after year, and their yearly 3 million-plus in attendance proves it. The mess that Frank McCourt has created will keep the Dodgers in a state of disarray for years to come, regardless of how much longer his reign atop the organization lasts.
If I was a kid growing up today in Southern California and I had to follow one team, it's not longer an easy choice. Geography has never really been much of a question - a 30 mile car ride, regardless of traffic, isn't that much to deal with if you were to only going to a handful of games a year. MLB TV and the internet have made it possible to follow whatever team you like, however closely you want to follow them. Dodger Stadium, for all the nostalgia and happiness it brings me to be there on a warm summer's night, is objectively inferior in quality to the newly renovated Angel Stadium, not to mention somewhat safer.
So the question again is, if you were a kid growing up today in Southern California would you begin to follow the team with the greater heritage but in a pennant-less 23 year slump with an ownership situation in near-constant turmoil? Or would you choose the team whose competitive and victory-obsessed leadership has turned it so rapidly from one of the league's smaller market teams to one of it's most valued?
I deserve to be asked the question "Dodgers or Angels?". In a few years, maybe I won't be asked it anymore. But it won't be because of the reasons I have come to expect.