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Deader Than Ever

Photo by Keith MayProfessional sports have died so many deaths in Orange County that they seem like one of those things that die a lot of deaths--you know, like neoclassical architecture or Dick York.

When did professional OC sports become dead again for you?

The Henderson home run?

The Rams move?

The new NHL team named after--and outfitted as--a B-movie?

Deadly moments all. But it was thisyear that professional sports became deaderer than ever. This was the year nobody cared.

The Angels finished 41 games behind Seattle? Uh-huh. The Ducks ended the 2001 season with a worse record than both new expansion teams? Yeah. Teemu Selanne traded? Well. Mo Vaughn begged to be sent back to the Red Sox? My God! Dick York is dead?! Now, which one was he?

People still went to the games, though attendance numbers never seemed to jibe with actual fannies in actual seats. But even at the games, it was clear that many fans were either not there specifically to cheer for the home team or were there to specifically cheer against them. The biggest hometown cheers were reserved for the Jumbotron hot dog races and/or Rally Monkey antics. Mmmmm. Monkey antics.

The same went for the Pond, where I personally witnessed a game against the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche that could fill just half the arena, including one frighteningly unruly child who began a "Roast the Ducks!" chant that soon spread over the entire place.

"Is that your kid?" I was asked by the couple in matching Avalanche jerseys--Patrick Roy for madam, Joe Sakic for the gentleman.

"Yes," I said about my 8-year-old, himself decked out in a Sakic sweater.

My son actually has not one but two Mighty Ducks jerseys. But even he notices what Ducks management has wrought, trading away Selanne, his favorite player. Jackie isn't allowed to say "suck," but he knows it when he sees it.

The punch line, of course, is that Ducks management is the same as for the Angels--Disney. And in almost any story, letter to the editor or sports talk-radio diatribe, someone invariably mentions that Disney has turned these teams into "Mickey Mouse operations" (proving that even the teams' critics aren't trying very hard these days).

In fact, fan malaise can be tied to a different Disney character: the manic-depressive imp Tinkerbell. You remember Tinkerbell: rascally, sparkly, threatening pixicide if people didn't believe in her. Well, that's just it. Nobody believes in Disney anymore. No one believes the company actually cares about fielding winning teams. It's one thing to think your favorite team drafts unwisely or doesn't get enough back in player trades. There is at least the supposition that their moves, boneheaded as they may be, are all made with winning in mind. But when you cease to believe your favorite team wants to win--well, now you're talking about the integrity of the game.

That's why Pete Rose got himself banned from baseball. His crime was gambling. Disney's crimes are hiring a good coach in Ron Wilson--the only coach to take either of their teams to the playoffs--and then dumping him because they didn't like the way he presented himself to the media. It's trading for Teemu Selanne, a move designed to silence critics about Disney's desire to win, and then dumping him for next to nothing. It's paying big for Vaughn and then shopping him almost immediately. And there's so much more--and so much less.

Disney's sentence is apathy and revulsion. And not just from local fans. The NBA, wary of doing business with Disney, bypassed Orange County when looking for a new home for the Vancouver Grizzlies; the team ended up in freaking Memphis. When major-league baseball was talking about contraction, most scenarios had Florida Marlins owner John Henry folding his team and buying the Angels. That is, until Henry said he was much more interested in buying perennial heartbreaker Boston.

It's a far cry from the days when the Disney touch was a given for success. Those were the days when Disney was unrivaled in animation and didn't have to discount its theme-park tickets. Back then, Tony Tavares, Disney's Lazarus-like sports czar, could ridicule former Angels management's marketing skills and boast that his crew would bring a new way of doing business.

"It doesn't bother me if traditionalists are unhappy because they don't care if everybody else is bored," he said back in 1996. "They just want everything the way it's always been. But tastes continue to develop in society, and we're going to give society what it wants now."

What it wants, of course, is for Disney to sell the teams. But, like dealing with Lazarus, people are wary of getting too close. Perhaps they believe the earth is already scorched. Perhaps it's because Disney always asks too much--the asking price for the Angels, worth an estimated $198 million, is reportedly $250 million. Perhaps it's just that people would rather not have the hassle. Which is how locals feel about the whole mess.

Yes, it's the end of pro sports as we know it, and we feel . . . Dear God! Dick Sargent's dead, too?!


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