ANAHEIM, Calif. – The Angels – be they of California, Anaheim or Los Angeles – have enjoyed two days greater than Saturday, those being the day they were born more than 50 years ago and the day they won a World Series nine years ago.
Beyond that, near-misses chased hollow wins, heartache chased promise and, generally, the Angels chased the Los Angeles Dodgers. Lovable and gentlemanly Gene Autry couldn't ever get them quite right, and soulless Disney somehow earned a championship in spite of itself, and then the rakish Arte Moreno bought the Angels, stabilized them, glammed them up, and somehow never raised another World Series banner.
Yet, on as glorious an afternoon as a team may enjoy in mid-December, thousands of Angels fans crowded the entryway of Angel Stadium. They held signs in their hands praising their new favorite ballplayer, and chanted his name, and warmed at the sight of the sun bouncing from his shorn dome.
"Pujols! Pujols!" they cried.
They saved some breath for the new pitcher, too, an ace from Texas who'd be a No. 3 in this town.
"C.J.!" they shouted. "C.J.!"
By then the podium, eight seats long, had filled but for one man.
He arrived in a black suit, his hair pushed back, and with dark shades wrapped coolly around his head. His signature mustache – pencil-thin, of course – had recently merged with an equally reedy goatee.
In the weeks since the end of the regular season, the second in a row to end with the Angels falling short of the playoffs, he'd been heard from now and again. He'd cleared out his front office, for one, firing the general manager and a handful of others. He'd hired a new general manager, then strafed the winter meetings with the signings of Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, the top bat and arm on the free-agent market. In all, he'd spent $332 million, or nearly twice what he'd paid for the franchise nine years ago.
Had he a sense of humor, he might have appeared Saturday wearing a white turtleneck, blue blazer and aviator sunglasses.
Yes, he is El Jefe.
Reared a Yankees fan, Arte Moreno had tired of second place. He'd tired of the wrong answers from the men working for him. He'd tired of coming in a couple bucks short, of watching the grandest free agents run off to New York and Boston and, perhaps worse, Texas.
Hell, it wasn't a year ago when Moreno was cautioning Angels fans not to expect the types of ballplayers the Yankees and Red Sox buy. It was how he explained Mark Teixeira three years ago, and then Carl Crawford and Adrian Beltre last year. The Angels, he said, aren't those franchises.
And then they were. And he was making it so.
"Everybody can be a victim," he said, "when they want to be a victim."
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With $332 million, he was blacktopping the Vernon Wells catastrophe and healing the Kendrys Morales calamity. He was creating offensive production from nothing but fresh TV money, ticket sales and Rally Monkey dolls.
He was standing beside Pujols, raising Pujols' arm like the trainer of a winning prizefighter, grinning at the people who now chanted his name.
The game needed a new Boss.
Moreno saved us from that being Jeffrey Loria.
The game needed a new villain.
(Although I suppose Loria could still be that.)
Around the offices in Anaheim, he is known as being tough and fair. He notes criticism and holds grudges forever. He is known to have incredibly high standards.
"He lives up to them," team president John Carpino said Saturday, "and he expects his people to live up to them as well."
And so when his organization appeared to grow old in places and bog down in others, when it could not catch the Yankees or Red Sox consistently enough, when it was passed up by the Rangers in its own division, Moreno found new people to make the baseball decisions and then took matters into his own checkbook.
He bought himself an Albert Pujols. He recruited Albert Pujols, along with wife, Deidre. Completely out of character, completely away from his perceived philosophies, he stood on a stage Saturday afternoon with Albert Pujols, applauded Albert Pujols and helped Albert Pujols into an Angels uniform.
And he didn't care who liked it or who didn't.
"We have basically no debt on the team," he said. "Economically we're stable enough to accomplish this. We look at it as an investment."
Moreno, the same guy who railed against the system last winter, claimed it wasn't even really a different philosophy.
"I just think it's a different kind of player," he said. "I had an opportunity. And we could afford it."
That simple. So, he gave a man in his 30s the second-richest contract in baseball history, one that will pay him into his 40s. He quite possibly tied the health of his franchise to the type of contract that hardly ever works. He looked at this man Pujols and believed he would no longer be the victim, at least not today, one of the great days in franchise history, and maybe not tomorrow either.
"Hey," El Jefe said, "we're not going to play 2021 today. We're going to play 2012."
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