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PENNIES FROM Heaven
Phil Taylor
February 09, 2004
By spending many of his millions on prime free agents, new Anaheim owner Arte Moreno hopes to turn L.A. into the City of his Angels
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February 09, 2004

Pennies From Heaven

By spending many of his millions on prime free agents, new Anaheim owner Arte Moreno hopes to turn L.A. into the City of his Angels

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WHEN THE Anaheim Angels were part of the vast empire of the Walt Disney Co., the team was a mere cog in the corporate machine, so much so that some Angels employees reportedly liked to joke that the franchise was just a pimple on Dumbo's, uh, derriere. For most of their 43-year history (seven of them as a Disney property), the Angels have had only slightly more impact on the Southern California scene, their 2002 World Series championship notwithstanding. Most baseball fans in the Los Angeles area have bled Dodger Blue, not Angel.... That's just it—who even knew what color an Angels fan was supposed to bleed?

These days the dominant hue in Anaheim is green. The Angels' deep-pocketed new owner, billboard mogul Arte Moreno, has shelled out plenty of it in his first off-season at the helm, landing five free agents for $146.3 million, tops in the majors and nearly as much as the $183.5 million he spent to purchase the team last May. During a winter in which most teams are watching their pennies, the Angels' shopping spree has raised eyebrows around the major leagues and made it clear that the Dodgers have a serious competitor for the hearts—and wallets—of fans in SoCal (page 60).

First, Moreno, 57, authorized the signings of two front-of-the-rotation free-agent starters—righthanders Bartolo Colon (four years, $51 million) and Kelvim Escobar (three years, $18.75 million)—and then green-lighted the signing of a big bat, out-fielder Jose Guillen (two years, $6 million). But that was all a warm-up to his headline move—the Jan. 12 signing of free-agent outfielder Vladimir Guerrero for $70 million over five years. (Two days later the Angels added third baseman Shane Halter for one year at $575,000.) "I wouldn't put us in the Yankees' category," closer Troy Percival says of the spending spree. "But you know that other owners and G.M.'s must be looking at what we've done and are saying, 'Whoa, a high roller just sat down at the table.' "

According to Moreno, some executives may have far less complimentary things to say—privately, at least—about his market-inflating moves. As he prepared for an owners meeting in Arizona after the Guerrero signing, Moreno said that colleagues who are unable or unwilling to pay similarly big bucks aren't thrilled with his sudden spending. "I'm going to look like Custer with a bunch of arrows in my back," he told the Los Angeles Times. "I mean, what would the reaction have been when people learned I had Vladimir Guerrero in my hands and let him go? I've got to live with my fans and writers. It won't be the last time I'll be beat down by my peers."

In the face of such dynamic deals by their neighbor, it's hard for the Dodgers, who are under new ownership themselves after real estate developer Frank McCourt's $430 million bid was approved last week, to trumpet the signing of Bubba Trammell. But Moreno, who grew up in Tucson listening to Vin Scully's radio broadcasts of Dodgers games, clearly has more in mind than just sticking it to his local rival. He's trying to spend money to make money, hoping to raise his team's profile and thereby expand its fan base and increase its revenue, particularly in its television and radio deals. "He has an amazing business sense, which is why everything he touches turns a profit," says Dave Baggott, the former general manager of the Salt Lake City Trappers, a minor league team of which Moreno was a co-owner from 1986 through '92. "He obviously knows how to take a business and make it grow."

Putting a better product on the field than the team that finished 77-85 and third in the American League West last year is the most important aspect of the Angels' plan, but Moreno also has enough of the huckster in him to find other ways to grab the attention of the public and the media. One of his first acts as owner was to lower ballpark beer prices across the board—the high-end, imported stuff dropped from $8.50 to a less exorbitant $6.75—which might have been a blatant public relations move, but one that bought him instant goodwill from fans. He also had manager Mike Scioscia, general manager Bill Stoneman and since-departed V.P. Kevin Uhlich appear in red-and-silver sombreros when his purchase of the team was officially announced. Goodbye, boring press conference. Hello, major photo op.

Moreno is more than willing to bang the drum for his team, but he's far less interested in self-promotion. When he walks around the ballpark during games he's looking for fan feedback, not chasing celebrity. Now that the first wave of media attention following his purchase of the team has passed, Moreno prefers to keep a low public profile, according to the Angels' communications department. Toward that end he has declined several media requests in recent months, including one from SI to be interviewed for this article. "He's recently taken the stance that he would rather have the focus on the team and not on himself," says Tim Mead, the Angels' vice president of communications.

Although he has stressed that he's not targeting a particular demographic, Moreno, a fourth-generation Mexican-American, is baseball's first Latino majority owner, and his ethnicity will surely help him connect with the Latin segment of Southern California's potential fan base. (There are an estimated 6.5 million Hispanics in the L.A. area.) Among his plans: to have more Angels games broadcast on Spanish-language television. His heritage gave him an edge in his dealings with the four big free agents, all of whom are Latin. (Colon, Guerrero and Guillen are from the Dominican Republic, and Escobar is Venezuelan.) When Colon was weighing offers from various clubs, Moreno was the only owner who called and made his pitch in Colon's native Spanish. The owner also translated for Guerrero at the press conference announcing his signing. "There were many factors that led to Vladimir's signing," says Fernando Cuza, one of Guerrero's agents. "The presence of an owner who can help make him comfortable in terms of language and culture was certainly one of those factors."

While Moreno has spread his money around in a manner that has drawn comparisons with Yankees owner George Stein-brenner, the similarity between the two men seems to end at the checkbook. The only reason Moreno would abruptly fire an employee is for refusing to call him Arte instead of his given name, Arturo, or Mr. Moreno. He is by all accounts as down-to-earth as a billionaire can be. The oldest of 11 children, Moreno is a Vietnam veteran who worked his way up from billboard salesman to co-owner of Phoenix-based Outdoor Systems, a small billboard company that he and partner Bill Levine built up and eventually sold to Infinity Broadcasting/ CBS in 1999 for $8.3 billion. He was on Forbes magazine's list of the 400 wealthiest Americans in 2003, with an estimated net worth of $1 billion.

It was that bankroll that allowed Anaheim to move so quickly and decisively on the free-agent market. Unlike many other front offices, the Angels' does not have to work through a corporate hierarchy, just Moreno. When one of Guerrero's agents, Pat Rooney, invited Anaheim to bid on his client, Stoneman submitted an offer the next day, and the deal was done a day later. "I said to Arte, 'This is a really special player who would change our lineup,' " says Stoneman. "Arte said, 'If you want to go for it, go for it.' Simple as that."

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