You think hitting a curve ball is hard? Try getting big bucks out of people to watch a team that can't throw one. When Disney bought the Angels (25 percent of the franchise in 1996, the rest after Gene Autry's death in 1998), the talk centered on how the brilliant marketing giant was going to market this team. Looking back, the strategy seems to have amounted to one B-movie and changing the team colors to periwinkle blue.
The rest has been dropped in the lap of the hard-working folks in the team's season-ticket office who not only have to sell snow to Eskimos but also have to sell snow to Eskimos with the snow packaged in boxes with ESKIMOS SUCK printed across them.
We wondered how this year, of all years—when not losing 100 games passes for a team goal—you can sell the Angels to the public.
Two weeks before the start of this major-league season, we placed a call to the Angels' season-ticket office. A very nice, very earnest employee called us back and offered these words of encouragement:
"Last year, every one of our season-ticket holders was excited. We had just signed Mo Vaughn for $80 million, and we were supposed to win the division. Then Mo got hurt1, and we had a bad year.2 This year everyone is saying we're supposed to have another terrible year.3 Chuck Finley is gone4, and everyone is picking us to be not very good.5
"We don't have the pitching yet, so we have to get some.6 But so does everyone—unless you're the Atlanta Braves, you're looking for pitching.7 But that's not easy. We haven't been able to replace Chuck yet. Everyone is looking for pitching. We're still looking to obtain pitching.8
"We've hired all new coaches with World Series experience, Mike Scioscia and a bunch of former Dodgers.9 The positives are that our everyday players can match up with just about anyone else's. Our eight can match up with just about anyone else.10
"The stadium is the same.11 We still have Big Bang Friday night—have you ever been to that? It's not like a couple of sparklers and you're done. It's 30 minutes of fireworks. We have tons of promotions, hats, T-shirts, Magnet Night.12 Seats near the right-field pavilion, that's where they have lots of the kids' games, and you're probably going to spend a good deal of time out there because it's next to impossible to keep a kid's attention for nine innings.13
"Our renewal rate is down, like, 20 percent to 25 percent. That's been in the paper. What they haven't told you is that that isn't our longtime ticket holders. Those have been mostly people who only had tickets a year or two. Our longtime fans, the real baseball fans, are sticking with us."14
/1/ When Vaughn, perhaps the most sought-after free agent on the market before last season, was signed by the Angels for six years at $80 million, it seemed that the Disney era had finally arrived. Its big money and marketing muscle were finally rehabilitating the Angels' reputation as snake-bitten losers. But when Vaughn was injured in the first inning of the first game of his first season —inexplicably jumping into the visitors' dugout chasing a foul ball he had no chance of catching—it only gave credence to the notion that the Angels are cursed, and not in the cutesy, feel-good Chicago Cubs/Boston Red Sox kind of way. The Angels are more like the Kennedys: murder, suicide, broken legs caught in outfield fences, season-ending collapses and postseason losses of such exquisitely cruel timing and nature that they argue against the existence of a compassionate God. Consider Vaughn. Before last season, he was considered one of the five best players in the league. After playing a season in Anaheim and putting up very good numbers despite his injury (.281 average, 33 HR, 108 RBI), this year he's hardly considered at all. It seems that when he chose to leap into that visiting dugout, he was at once enveloped by all the baggage that comes with the Angels. Last year's free-agent jewel is now being called a 32-year-old injury-prone designated hitter, and it was rumored during the preseason that the Angels, desperately in search of pitching, were mentioning his name in trade talks.
/2/ Actually, last year's 70-92 record was an improvement. Consider that it placed the Angels No. 23 overall in the major leagues. Further consider that the Angels' cumulative 738-817 record for the decade, a winning (ha!) percentage of .475, placed them at No. 24. Don't you see what's happening? Slow and steady improvement! Circle your calendar for pennant drive 2021!
/3/ Talk about your soft sell. Yes, it's true that most people believe the Angels will have an abysmal year with a monumental 100 losses a possibility. And by "most people," we mean all who make baseball their business. In a preseason survey by CNNSI.com, each of the 11 baseball experts questioned picked the Angels to finish last in the American League West—and the American League West is probably the weakest division in baseball. The reasons for this consensus are that baseball is a game in which success is predicated on pitching and hitting, and the Angels don't do much of either. Their pitching staff may be the worst in baseball. They ranked No. 14 in batting last season with a team average of .256 and were 13th in runs scored.
/4/ Going absolutely nowhere last season, the Angels had an opportunity to trade Finley, who was going to be a free agent at the end of the season, to a contender—Cleveland was especially interested—for some prospects for Anaheim's woeful farm system. Instead, the team asked for too much, and Finley stayed in Anaheim. After the season, Finley, who won a remarkable 135 games for the Angels in the 1990s, signed with Cleveland. The Angels received bubkes.
/5/ It's not entirely accurate to say that everyone is picking the Angels to do horribly. Bill Stoneman, the team's new general manager, has been positively upbeat about the team's prospects, though his attitude seems more than a bit forced. In preseason interviews, Stoneman said he expects the Angels to contend for the division crown, though management has done little to improve on a very bad team. When called on this, Stoneman's m.o. is to go into one of those denial modes popular with Mike Wallace interviewees. "So, what are you going to do about pitching?" "Pitching? I think our pitching is great." "But all your pitchers are either hurt or aren't very good." "I know that. Don't you think I know that? It's so funny that you don't think I know that." "So, what are you going to do?" "About what?" "The pitching." "Pitching? Pitching isn't a problem."
/6/ So why have the Angels been giving pitchers away? And not just Finley. Omar Olivares led the team in ERA last season and was shipped off to division rivals Oakland. Now the A's, in part because of Olivares' presence, are division favorites. If the Angels were going to get rid of someone, why couldn't it be Ken Hill, who is bad enough to be the team's No. 2 starter? Hill's not a very good pitcher, but at least he makes up for it with having terrible timing. At the tail end of a bad spring-training campaign, Hill told reporters he would no longer be speaking to them; he would let his pitching do the talking. He then went out and gave up six runs in four innings. When reached for comment, Hill's pitching said, "D'oh!"
/7/ The hallmark of successful teams like the Braves, the Indians and the Yankees is that they are always looking to improve their team. Witness the Yankees trading for Clemens last year. The difference is that these are teams with long-term plans for success that are constantly looking to upgrade. Upon arriving at Indians camp this spring, Finley said it was such a pleasure to be with a team that actually had a plan instead of one that just tried to patch something together each spring.
/8/ A week after this phone call, the Angels obtained St. Louis pitcher Kent Bottenfield, as well as rookie second baseman Adam Kennedy, in exchange for Jim Edmonds. Edmonds had become persona non grata for reasons that were never really explained. In a league with Ken Griffey Jr., Edmonds was generally acknowledged as the league's best defensive outfielder. In seven seasons, he'd hit .290 and hit 25 or more homers four times. Nonetheless, he was said to be wearing on his teammates and management. The term most often used in relation to Edmonds was "enigma." Exactly what that meant was never made clear. (Certainly one should be careful when using that term about a pro ballplayer. One reporter once called former Angel Reggie Jackson an enigma, and Jackson fumed that he had been racially slurred.) Perhaps because Edmonds was a free agent after this year, the Angels were afraid of repeating the Finley fiasco and wanted to make sure they got something for him. What they got is the 31-year-old Bottenfield, who the Angels are proud to point out was an All-Star last year. True. But it's also true that Bottenfield went 4-4 after the All-Star break with a 4.26 ERA and had to shut down his season early with shoulder problems. He went 18-7 last year, but in his previous six seasons, he had a combined 18-27 record. Bottenfield was reportedly stunned by the trade and struggling to come to grips with being shipped to the Angels. Oh, by the way, Bottenfield is a free agent after this season. Ta da!
/9/ You know times are desperate when the Angels feel the need to invoke the Dodgers to sell tickets. For years, the Angels' real opponent has been the Dodgers, whom they have battled, mostly unsuccessfully, for Southern California's attention. The '90s would have been a great time to make serious inroads against the Dodger mystique when that team was sold to Rupert Fucking Murdoch, but the Angels underachieved on a grand scale and traded Mike Piazza. The Angels in the mid-'90s, with a great young cast of players, seemed to be the team on the rise. A few years later, it's the Dodgers who still reign supreme, in large part because they traded malcontent Raul Mondesi to the Blue Jays for Shawn Green, one of the best young players in the game. Probably most galling for the Angels is that the national media have noted many times that Green is coming back to play for his hometown team. He's from Tustin.
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/10/ All right, that's a little more salespersonish. The Angels cannot match any other team's eight. They begin the season unsure about the identity of their everyday catcher and second baseman. At shortstop, Gary DiSarcina is a competitor but can't hit. At third is Troy Glaus, who one day may be the Angels' best player but right now is young—starting just his second full season—and inconsistent. The outfield is the team's strength, though it got considerably weaker when Edmonds was traded. Garret Anderson is solid if unspectacular. Tim Salmon is everything you'd want in a ballplayer except healthy. Everyone loves to see Darin Erstad's grit and fire. Unfortunately, last season, opposing pitchers loved to see his bat. Erstad hit just .253 with 13 home runs.
/11/ Fake rocks, prohibitively priced beer, whiffle ball, video games, et al.
/12/ "Magnet Night." Do you think the Yankees or the Dodgers are selling Magnet Night? This is where the salesman earns his keep: "Gloss over the pitching and push the magnets."
/13/ Depends on which nine innings. Can you imagine a kid saying, "No, Dad, I don't want to watch Mark McGwire hit. I'd rather play this crappy whiffle-ball game that I could be playing in my own driveway."