Sports Nut

City of Angels

How a team from Anaheim stole the Dodgers’ home turf.

Angelic uprising. Click image to expand.
Angelic uprising

Ever since they stormed through the 2002 postseason, the Angels have been Southern California’s fair-haired franchise. The front page of this morning’s Los Angeles Times sports page screams, “Angels Have More in Tank“; another headline gloats, “For the Fifth Straight Year, Yankees Aren’t Dandy.” Columnist Bill Plaschke even compares Ervin Santana —the rookie pitcher who saved last night’s decisive Game 5 of the Division Series with 5 1/3 innings of emergency relief—to another Los Angeles legend: Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

But the team most responsible for this Los Angeles love-fest didn’t play last night. While suburban Anaheim rocked as the Angels eliminated the Yankees for the second time in four years, the terraces at Dodger Stadium sat empty during the playoffsfor the eighth time in nine seasons. Take away the Dodgers’ persistent mediocrity, and there is no Angels renaissance.

In baseball’s other two-team towns, Chicago and New York, loyalties are decided based on long-term family allegiance. There’s never been any question who owned Los Angeles. When the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn after the 1957 season, they brought major-league baseball to Southern California. The Los Angeles Angels hung out their shingle to little fanfare in 1961 as an American League expansion franchise. After playing their first five seasons in L.A. proper, the Angels basically ceded the city to the Dodgers by making Anaheim their home in 1966.

Over their first 31 seasons—until 2002—the Angels won three division flags but never advanced to the World Series. All the while, the Dodgers racked up world championships and Hall of Famers and churned out homegrown talent from their exemplary farm system. The Dodgers were Hollywood’s team, but it was more than mere proximity that made them stand out. The mellifluous Vin Scully helped Peter O’Malley’s franchise make class a brand hallmark. Fernando Valenzuela, a rotund Sonoran left-hander savvily plucked out of the Mexican League, became a hero in an increasingly Hispanic city.

Unlike the White Sox and Mets, who constantly nipped at the ankles of the Cubs and Yankees, the Angels never staked a claim as anything more than a lifeboat for fans who couldn’t make it to Chavez Ravine or couldn’t stomach the Dodgers’ starched perfection. The team’s marquee players, guys like Nolan Ryan, Rod Carew, and Reggie Jackson, had their best years elsewhere. No matter how exciting the Angels’ offseason acquisitions, Angelenos never forgot that O’Malley brought baseball to the city; they rewarded the Dodgers with attendance records and civic devotion.

In the late 1990s, both family-owned franchises followed the prevailing trend in Major League Baseball and sold out to corporate entities—the Dodgers to Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. and the Angels to Disney, the studio that brought us Angels in the Outfield. What followed was baseball malaise. Shaq arrived to revive the Lakers, and Los Angeles returned to its default mode as a basketball town. The Dodgers and Angels trundled along, benignly irrelevant.

That’s what made 2002 the most pronounced counterfactual in Los Angeles sports history. The Angels were 6-14 in April before catching fire and lucking into the kind of marketing bonanza that even Disney couldn’t hope to engineer. The franchise took the wild card and roared into the World Series behind a lovable primate mascot called the Rally Monkey, a stadium full of noise-making Thundersticks, and a collection of gritty players who, as the cliché goes, embodied the blue-collar ethic of their manager, longtime Dodger catcher Mike Scioscia. After several years spent covering colorless, post-Piazza athletes, sportswriters like Plaschke latched onto the Angels’ collection of cuddly overachievers (Opie look-alike David Eckstein and 31-year-old rookie Brendan Donnelly) and dignified warriors (Garrett Anderson and Troy Percival).

For Dodger fans, the world had turned upside down. SoCal dripped with Angel red as the hard-charging junior-varsity team from Orange County battled the hated San Francisco Giants for the World Series crown. When the Angels rallied to win the title, they even rubbed it in by calling themselves Los Angeles’ “A Team” in their 2003 marketing campaign.

Angels fans’ good fortune didn’t end after the World Series. Arte Moreno bought the franchise in 2003 and immediately lowered beer prices. He then doled out hefty multiyear contracts to stars like Vladimir Guerrero and Bartolo Colon and granted extensions to hometown heroes like Garrett Anderson and Darin Erstad. Across town, new Dodgers’ owner Frank McCourt brought in general manager Paul DePodesta. While Moreno and his GM, Bill Stoneman, threw money at fan favorites, DePodesta showed more fealty to numbers than roster continuity. While shipping off team leader Paul Lo Duca was the right move statistically, Dodger fans didn’t cotton to DePodesta’s perceived disloyalty.

The Angels and Dodgers won division titles in the same year for the first time in 2004. But Moreno’s decision this past offseason to dub his team “The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim” really showed how far the rivalry has come. The name change was a topic of discussion for only about five minutes in Los Angeles, but it’s significant insofar as it represents the franchise’s eagerness to rejoin the civic conversation. Ten years ago, an Angels billboard on Sunset Boulevard would have been laughable. Now there are signs all over Hollywood, West Los Angeles, and the Eastside—there’s even one less than a mile from Dodger Stadium.

Moreno’s marketing incursion north of the Orange County border has taken root particularly in the Latino households that have been a Dodgers stronghold dating back to Fernandomania. And by all press accounts, the Angels have virtually erased the Dodgers’ historical advantage in the local television war. This year, the Angels averaged a 2.8 rating for their 49-game, over-the-air package on KCAL; the Dodgers scored a meager 2.1 rating for their 25 games on the local UPN affiliate.

David Eckstein has moved on to St. Louis, and the improbable 2002 team has been replaced by a club with the fourth-highest payroll in baseball. No matter how many Molina brothers are on the roster, the 2005 team will be hard-pressed to recapture the mania that surrounded the 2002 World Series champs. When the city’s forgotten National League team eventually finds its way, Moreno’s marketing and Erstad’s grit might not be enough to keep Angelenos from their congenital predisposition toward Dodger Blue. But even for beleaguered Dodger fans, this Angels ascendancy is all good news. At least Southern California is once again a hot stove for baseball.