Friday, November 19, 2004

Institutional Buffoonery

Whew, time to take a respite from the offseason hiatus (?) and blow some dust off this joint. School's coming along fine, thanks for asking, but it doesn't leave a whole lot of time left over for blogging. With the end of the World Series, I decided to get my priorities straightened out, vis-a-vis my free time. The blog, unfortunately, found its way down the list (at least until spring training starts). So, some quick takes before I launch into what brought me out of my temporary exile: The Lakers are just about where we thought they'd be. The Clippers are better than we thought they'd be. And I still have a funny feeling that the BCS will figure out a way to fulfill the "Mandatory Pac-10 Screw Job" clause in its charter and concoct a scheme to keep USC out of the Orange Bowl.

One of the stories that I've been following from my cross-country perspective is the efforts by Arte Moreno to rename his team the "Los Angeles Angels." It involves issues of civic pride and regional recognition, and this piece from today's LA Times, captures the essence of the controversy better than any other so far.

Historically, I've never had much regard for the Angels. I don't mean that in a negative way, I just mean that I never really had the team on my radar. While I was growing up as a huge Dodger fan, the Angels were just the somewhat local American League club with endemic institutional buffoonery that played nearby, but not that nearby. I never understood why they shared front-page space with the Dodgers in the LA Times sports section. (There's a part of me that still doesn't understand.) The Los Angeles Dodgers were Los Angeles' team; the California Angels were... somebody else's team. Even when they had their big playoff run in 1986, right after my formative experience with the Dodgers in '85, I just couldn't bring myself to care about them in any significant way. If they had a good year, that was nice. If they didn't, whatever. It's just the Angels. No big deal.

Obviously, a big part of that was the relative history and tradition of the two teams. The Dodgers had a pedigree and a long lineage, with Hall-of-Fame players, World Series championships, and a secure, rightful place in American lore. The Angels had... Bo Belinsky. That the Angels were just inherently inferior to the Dodgers was a given, an immutable fact of baseball in Southern California. Even in the 1990s, while the Dodgers endured a calamitous decade on and off the field, the Angels couldn't capitalize. They had their own on-field disaster in 1995, and seemed forever doomed to be the red-headed stepchild to the Dodgers' golden boy.

Of course, that all changed in 2002. Yeah, I rooted for the Angels that year, in the same way I was rooting for the Red Sox this year. It was the underdog thing; I didn't care much about the team overall, but it was nice to see the perennial whipping boy make good. (The fact that their World Series opponent was the Giants made that somewhat easier.) But that championship shifted the regional dynamics that had always been in place. The Angels could no longer be looked down on in disdain by the Southern California baseball cognoscenti. Orange County's little red-headed stepchild had captivated the region. AK and Ecks and Glaus and Percy and K-Rod had become household names. Angels gear was the hot fashion in the malls and on all the beaches. The LA Times had become Your #1 Source for Angels Coverage! (The Times started regularly listing the baseball standings with the AL always above the NL, meaning that the Angels would always be at the very top of the column, while the Dodgers place in the standings was buried halfway down the page, below the American League probable starters. A minor point, but a subtle, all-too-apparent embodiment of the Dodgers' diminished stature.) For us Dodger fans, at that point enduring a 14th straight year of postseason futility, these were all vaguely disturbing trends.

Then Arte Moreno stepped into the picture. He came in and basically said, "I'm not going to allow 2002 to be some kind of fluke. This team is going to have the payroll to compete with the big boys, and we're going to put a perennial winner on the field. Oh, and by the way, I'm slashing the price of beer at the concession stands." Meanwhile, our beloved team was being written off by the Fox Group, and MLB was fervently pulling the strings so that a financially-constrained owner would succeed to the throne. The fans of Orange County, for too long neglected by the sports gods, were bursting with pride, and for the first time ever, the Dodger faithful were looking wistfully towards the Orange Curtain.

Last offseason's Vladimir Guerrero debacle was emblematic of an Angels franchise that seemingly could do no wrong, while the Dodgers were struggling to do anything right. Moreno started charging hard after the Los Angeles market, with an aggressive advertising campaign that proclaimed the Angels as LA's team, with strapping Anaheimians like Kennedy and Erstad deviously slapping the Angels logo on various LA landmarks. In contrast, the Dodgers' big advertising push in 2004 featured a family of talking bobblehead dolls.

The Dodgers needed a successful 2004 in more ways than one. A reassertion of authority in the suddenly competitive Southern California baseball market was essential for a franchise that had taken its primacy for granted for far too long. The Dodgers indeed had a successful year, re-energizing and reinvigorating a fan base that had been starved for October baseball. But the Angels had a successful year, too, with an exciting playoff run and an MVP season out of Vlad. LA is pumped about its team -- its real team, the Dodgers -- and Orange County is still beaming about its team. The stage, perhaps, has been set for a mutually beneficial golden era of healthy competition between the two clubs, and maybe even a genuinely passionate cross-town (or cross-region) rivalry will develop.

But now Arte Moreno is trying to screw everything up. He has made all the right moves since he became owner of the Angels two years ago, but I think he is making a colossal blunder with his attempts to drop "Anaheim" from the team name. The emergence of the Angels the past few years has given Orange County a boost of civic pride, rare for a region of sprawling suburbs and isolated communities. It's a feeling that, for maybe the first time ever, the region can stand on even footing with Los Angeles. Moreno is undercutting that, badly. He is ruining a lot of the goodwill he built up with an Orange County fan base that wants nothing to do with their smoggy northern neighbor. I remember how the Raiders' civic support dwindled when Al Davis, in an effort to broaden his fan base, removed "Los Angeles" from the team's gear, schedules, logo, and tickets. Moreno has already taken that step, and I could see the same thing happening in Anaheim. The local passion that has been built up for the Angels could dwindle because of the subvert message that the team seems like they don't really want to be here. A team that disregards their loyal fans like that is a team headed for irrelevance. For a case study of this, please look under Expos, Montreal. (Also, remember how well the Los Angeles Rams fared while they played in Anaheim? The examples of why this is a bad idea are too numerous.)

No matter how many 'A' logos get plastered all over town, the Angels are not an LA team. The huge LA-Long Beach-Orange County metro agglomeration may be a single market under TV definitions, but the region is simply too geographically far-flung to reasonably have two teams claiming the same principal city as their respective base. Let's face it, the Angels play in a huge urban setting that is 40 miles removed from Los Angeles proper. They already have their own region, one that's plenty big enough to call home base. The Dodgers and Angels are not the Cubs and White Sox, or the Mets and Yankees, teams that legitimately inhabit single cities. They are, however, much more like the A's and Giants: Regionally similar but geographically distinct rivals that share the same television market.

As usual, money is behind this nonsense. Moreno wants to be able to able to market the team better by attaching the bigger name to it. For a guy who claims to be all about the fans first and foremost, this is a hypocritical slap in the face. So far, Anaheim mayor Curt Pringle has held his ground, and says he is going to hold Moreno up to his contractual obligations to call the team the "Anaheim Angels". But I'm sure the back-scratching payoff is not far behind. Already, a compromise offer has been made, according to the LA Times article: The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

And just like that, the golden era is over, and the Angels are back to being the buffoons of baseball.


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