Monday, August 29, 2022
The End of an Error?
For the first time since their team won their only World Series championship thus far, Angel fans have reason to believe there's light at the end of a painfully long tunnel. Owner Arte Moreno exploring options to sell the franchise must resemble the liberation promise of Dwight Eisenhower telling Allied forces, "You are about to embark on the great crusade" — the night before D-Day.
Just months after Darin Erstad clutched Kenny Lofton's fly out to center to finish their staggering seven-game 2002 Series conquest, Moreno bought the team from the Disney Corporation. He swelled with pride as the first Mexican-American major league owner. Angel fans swelled likewise over what seemed to be swelling as an era of dominance after what seemed a preceding snakebitten eternity.
It was too good to be true. The team finally shattered a near-forever of extraterrestrial collapses, failures, and tragedies that inspired things from a shortstop driving his bats through a cemetery to purge their evil spirits to a pitcher pondering a sage burning in the clubhouse and a general manager pondering engagement of a priest to exorcise their ballpark.
Now the Angels held the lease to the Promised Land and a new owner with pockets deep enough to rival a team (the Yankees) they beat three out of four in the division series that launched their championship run. Who knew? Two decades later, the Angels are a six-letter synonym for disaster. And Moreno has come to resemble the worst of the man who once owned those division series victims than he or his dwindling allies would ever admit.
From 2003 through 2009, the Angels won the American League West five out of seven tries. The team went from the second-most snakebitten AL franchise to powerhouse in what now seems a blink in time. In 13 seasons since, the Angels have won the West once, but finished the past five of six in fourth place in the five-team division.
Moreno's Angels have gone from signing and continuing to win with Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero, Sr. to drafting the transcendent Mike Trout and signing the transcendent enough Shohei Ohtani ... and becoming the team their future Hall of Fame center fielder and must-see-television pitcher/designated hitter can be anything but proud of.
With the uber-loyal Trout locked down in a gigabucks deal that makes him an Angel for life, baseball eyes knowing the Angels need a transfusion as drastically as a leukemia patient saw dealing Ohtani at this year's trade deadline as the donor who'd deliver particularly rich blood.
"The greatest two-way player in baseball history will be eligible for free agency in the fall of 2023," writes ESPN's Buster Olney, "so some other teams communicated to the Angels that they would be open to trades — and willing to include their very best prospects . . . Word quickly reached the interested parties that Arte Moreno, the Angels' owner, wouldn't sign off on any Ohtani deal. No one was surprised."
No one who's watched the Angels in the Moreno era should have been.
Moreno made his fortune as an advertising executive who turned the Outdoor Systems ad operation into an enterprise that fetched billions when Moreno and his partner sold it to Infinity Broadcasting in 1998. His forte was and remains marketing. It didn't exactly translate to baseball as opposed to Angel Stadium box office success.
Trout himself says he learned of Moreno exploring a team sale the same way the press did Tuesday, when the Angels made their formal announcement. And he hinted that, however grateful he is for Moreno believing in him and making him rich, it's not exactly enough anymore. Some things matter more than money to competitors.
"I think once you find out who buys it, whenever that is," Trout told the Orange County Register, "there are definitely conversations we're going to have to have. Obviously, I want to win."
Like many owners who ride the wild surf of their teams' successes in the beginning, Moreno began to believe in his own baseball genius. Unlike many such owners, Moreno behaved as though his role model for baseball ownership was the 1980s version of George Steinbrenner without half the summary executions and humiliations with which that Steinbrenner tortured Yankee fans for a generation.
The 1980s Steinbrenner loved "name guys who put fannies in the seats." Moreno has been much like that, particularly when it comes to hitters. So much so that he reeled in one after another name hitter, but ignored his team's real pitching needs, which have been somewhere between drastic and desperate for just about the whole of Trout's career to date.
Fairness requires we acknowledge that not all those deals for all those hitters who ended up hurting far more than helping the club were bad going in. It wasn't Moreno's fault that Albert Pujols's legs and feet reduced him to a barely-serviceable DH after that Hall of Famer-in-waiting's first Angels season. It wasn't Moreno's fault that Josh Hamilton and Anthony Rendon were/would be throttled by injuries.
Nor was it Moreno's fault that two prize pitchers he signed big enough, C.J. Wilson and Zack Cozart, would be hit hard enough with injuries that 1) Wilson would retire after a couple of good if not spectacular Angel seasons; and, 2) Cozart would pitch well for a third of a season before a) a torn labrum fielding a grounder cost him the rest of that season and b) shoulder and neck surgery would cost him 2019 — and his career, after he was traded away.
And it's certainly not as though Moreno anticipated Trout's first decade worth of such play as to have him baseball's fifth-best all-time center fielder at this writing, still, would turn into an injury-plagued second decade beginning. Say what you will about the owner's clumsiness and hubris, but he's not exactly the cause of Trout's and others' time-robbing injuries. Even Moreno isn't that kind of jinx.
But it was Moreno's ugly doing to run Hamilton out of town on the slickest rail he could find, after Hamilton incurred a drinking relapse while watching a Super Bowl, manned up and went right to baseball's drug policy administration with it, but discovered his Angel bosses had different thoughts about manning up.
It was Moreno's ugly doing, a couple of years before Trout came into his own, to gut the Angels' scouting system almost completely. "First," I wrote over three years ago, "they made international scouting director Clay Daniels the scapegoat for bonus skimming shenanigans by some of his subordinates; then, they pinked overall scouting chief Eddie Bane — one of whose last achievements was urging the Angels to sign a kid named Trout in the first place — as the scapegoat for a series of bad drafts and worse free agency signings and trades."
It was Moreno's ridiculous doing to order his then-general manager Tony Reagins — who couldn't persuade Hall of Famer-in-waiting Adrian Beltre to sign with the Angels as a free agent — to make a deal for Toronto outfielder/basher Vernon Wells post haste and or else! Then the Angels discovered the hard way that Wells was damaged goods. And the guy they sent the Blue Jays for him, bat-first catcher Mike Napoli, was going on to pitch in big for a pair of World Series teams in Texas and Cleveland and help a Red Sox team win their third Series ring of the century.
It was Moreno's ridiculous further doing to address the Angels' dire pitching needs over several years by ignoring quality pitching on the markets in favour of one after another reclamation project that failed in Anaheim but found either revival or retirement elsewhere. Which points to another wounding Moreno flaw. Loving and enriching the name guys putting fannies in the seats is one thing. His budgets otherwise have been tighter than James Brown's rhythm sections without yielding comparable fruit.
"Like a lot of billionaires before him," Olney writes, "Moreno seemed to believe he knew more about building a baseball team than the folks he hired. But the strengths that made him an extraordinary success before he bought the Angels became a weakness once he stepped into a sport that has become increasingly competitive."
Two former Angel GMs (Jerry Dipoto, now with the second-place Mariners; Billy Eppler, now running the National League East-leading Mets) found success enough after they escaped Moreno's all-thumbs touch. The incumbent, Perry Minasian, likewise hamstrung enough, may or may not survive this season's disaster.
Olney reminds us that Moreno selling the Angels would be baseball's biggest sigh of relief since Frank McCourt was forced to sell the Dodgers to the Guggenheim Group and the Wilpon family finally elected to sell the Mets to Steve Cohen. The sigh's breeze will be felt from sea to shining sea.
The timing may be telling enough. Moreno's attempt to buy Angel Stadium and its surrounding land from Anaheim collapsed three months ago, after Mayor Harry Sidhu resigned amid an FBI investigation into whether Sidhu shared "privileged and confidential information" with the team while they negotiated with the city. (The FBI didn't accuse Moreno or the Angels of wrongdoing.)
The Angels are also not off the hook just yet over the accidental overdose death of painkiller-addicted pitcher Tyler Skaggs in 2019. They face two wrongful death lawsuits by Skaggs's family — one by his parents, the other by his widow — in the wake of former Angels communications director Eric Kay's conviction in federal court for providing the fentanyl-containing drug that killed the popular left-hander.
It's worth remembering, too, that only when George Steinbrenner was suspended for his nefarity in digging up dirt on his Hall of Fame outfielder Dave Winfield did the Yankees finally have room to rebuild themselves back to greatness. An end to the Moreno era might well produce likewise for an Angels franchise that's had only one now-brief spell of greatness even if it has only one World Series trophy to show for it.
"Many executives," Olney continues, "believe that the Angels have not come close to exploiting the potential of their market. 'Because that place might be the best to work in in baseball,' one official said. 'The weather is perfect. The conditions are perfect. You can live on the beach. Nobody bothers them. The fans are good'."
With the best intentions but the worst approaches, Moreno's Angels ownership made it possible to believe paradise was hell in disguise. By comparison, the freeway traffic chokes that so often stand between the Pacific Ocean and Angel Stadium are walks on the beach.