Sunday, July 5, 2009

By Zach Stoloff - columnist

Last week ESPN The Magazine named the Angels organization #1 -- that’s right, the best in the (sports) business -- in a comprehensive survey ranking “all 122 MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL franchises by how much they give back to fans for all the emotion, money and time fans invest in their favorite teams.”

For a team which, for decades, was more closely associated with curses and bad Hollywood movies than winning baseball, this is nothing short of momentous. While there are always more championships to chase after, in a strong sense Arturo Moreno has achieved his vision of making the Angels a brand relevant to the greater sports world. However, this honor immediately begs the question of you, the reader: do you feel satisfied with the Angels?

Well, you should!

While journalism isn’t normally devoted to simply discussing why a given subject is particularly great, in plain terms this is exactly what I will be doing for the next 1,200 words. Why? Because I, even in my relatively short life, remember a time when being an Angels fan was not as easy, when 15,000 fans at Anaheim Stadium was commonplace, and when being in first place on July 6 was miraculous, not precarious. Given this history of futility, the team’s current status should never be taken for granted.

So let’s start running through all the reasons we, as Angels fans, have to be thankful, and give credit to the people who have completely changed the baseball culture in Anaheim.

I am going to start not with Arturo Moreno, but former General Manager Bill Stoneman. If it is possible to pick out one singular moment in which the franchise’s fortunes changed, it would be October 30, 1999: the day that Stoneman was hired. Quite simply, the now-consultant was the architect of the team which has won four of the past five titles in the Western Division. And while Stoneman was not responsible for developing the key components of the 2002 Championship, he did acquire the supporting pieces that turned that group from sometimes-contender to World Series winner.

Stoneman’s first action as GM was hiring Mike Scioscia, the other man whose presence has transformed the team. Though Scioscia was, at the time, considered young and somewhat inexperienced -- having only managed one season in the minors -- it is easy to forget that he had long been tabbed as the future heir to the Dodgers’ managerial legacy before FOX and Rupert Murdoch imprudently decided that they needed to bring in a big name like Davey Johnson. The fact that the Angels have been one of the most successful franchises in baseball this decade is in no small part attributable to Scioscia’s leadership, evidenced by the fact that he has already seen two former coaches move on to become managers with other organizations.

After these two men, of course, Arte Moreno must be named. Moreno refused to believe that the Angels were a mid-market team -- a fact Jackie Autry famously undersold -- and is largely the reason that there is a new dignity in being an Angels fan. That Mrs. Autry can now eat her words cannot be understated: even the Angels’ previous owners didn’t believe that the team had the resources to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox year-to-year. Moreno understood the opportunity in front of him and, combined with creative marketing and simple grass-roots appeal, has built an unmistakably big market franchise able to bring in marquee players and still be viable financially.

Probably as important, Arte -- for all his marketing and business saavy -- has always refused to interfere with baseball operations, allowing guys like Scioscia and Stoneman to put their talents to use in creating the kind of continuity that makes sports franchises great. Therefore, off the diamond is where Moreno has made his greatest impact. The expansion of the Angels brand has not been due to anything overtly flashy, simply giving fans what they want and making it affordable. At Angel Stadium parking is still only $8 (compared to the ridiculous $15 Dodger Stadium fee) and the average ticket price is the fifth lowest in baseball. For a perennial first place team in a major market, taking the family out to the ballpark is an incredible bargain.

Moreover, the integrity with which Angels franchise has carried itself has been beyond reproach. Seeing the Dodgers welcome in malcontent Manny Ramirez (who got himself traded to LA in the first place by dogging it on the field) brings to mind the way the Angels handled Jose Guillen in the fall of 2004. While Ramirez predictably let down the Dodgers, too, and has since been (mysteriously) cheered back into the fold, Guillen acted as if he was bigger than the team and was shown that he would not be allowed to hold his teammates hostage, even if his absent bat hurt their impending playoff run.

Beyond the big three I have already mentioned, there are many people responsible for bringing the franchise to where it is. Names like Tim Mead, Dennis Kuhl, Ken Forsch and Eddie Bane immediately come to mind, though the list could undoubtedly go on much, much longer. But however you view the relative success of the Angels franchise, there is one thing which must always be kept in mind: that there was a time (not so long ago) when it was very rare that an Angels’ season would feature 162 meaningful, consequential baseball games. Being able to watch a contender year after year is unequivocally the best gift that management has given its fans.

But now that the team is on top of the world, where do they go from here? Well, this is the one piece of speculation I will provide. Now that the Angels have a solid television contract -- essentially equal that of the Dodgers -- and their lawsuit with the city of Anaheim has been settled, making the team is free to continue using the ‘Los Angeles’ moniker, it would seem that revenues may have been tapped and business for the team might continue status quo for a while.

Here’s guessing that Arte Moreno already has his eyes on the year 2016, at which point the team can opt out of its lease at Angel Stadium. This is significant for two reasons: 1) it allows for the possibility of a new ballpark, and 2) it gives the team some business leverage. In this preseason interview here on, Kuhl certainly did not deny that leaving Angel Stadium was a possibility, a move which should be welcomed considering its status as the fifth oldest stadium in MLB -- a fact which is apparent despite the ’97 makeover -- and the vague touches of Disney that still taint the park.

So while now is an exciting time to be an Angels fan, the future looks equally bright. With affairs in the world the way they are, it is more important than ever to be thankful for what we have, even in the realm of sporting entertainment. That being said, as Angels fans we should all be thankful for the job that management has done building this team from the ground up, creating something which even its former proprietors said couldn’t be done.

On behalf of all fans, thank you to Angels management for making the ballpark experience what it is and, most of all, for 162 (or more) meaningful baseball games to watch nearly every year.

-Zach Stoloff
Love to hear what you think!


Anonymous said...

This article makes a great point in that there is new dignity in being an Angels fan. This organization has much to be proud of, from the top down. Being named the best organization in all of American sports is a BIG deal that should bring as much pride to the organization as that beautiful World Series trophy housed in Angel Stadium (I still marvel at it, every time I see it there). Cheers to the entire Angels family!

Listen to "A Fish Like This" Tribute song to Mike Trout's Greatness

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