ANAHEIM, Calif. – What now, Arte Moreno?
Wait it out? Seethe in silence? Order changes? Move the press box to Fullerton? Choose to believe?
The first couple weeks of April have boxed around Moreno's Los Angeles Angels, a team many picked to go to the World Series. Even win it. Like, this year. Presumably, 10 rather clumsy and imprecise games haven't changed the minds of those who can see seven or eight months into the future.
Moreno, we don't know about.
It will be four years in October since the Angels last played a postseason game, the end of a decent run Moreno financed and bled for. It was in that era that Moreno came to be thought of as "the people's owner." Not, of course, because he owned people. He didn't. But because he ran the franchise with a feel for the average folks who sat in his bleachers, who parked in his lots, who drank his beer and, ultimately, who connected with his team.
And the people loved him back. They eagerly shook his hand in the concourses, chanted his name during public news conferences and, even in the wake of a Disney championship, proudly called him theirs. Perhaps some grew pencil-thin mustaches in his honor, though that's not confirmed.
His ballclubs played hard, a little over their heads even. In that way, they reflected Moreno, the Vietnam vet and self-made man. His teams had stars. They had nasty little dirt bags. They played breathtaking ball that made the country-club world of Major League Baseball uncomfortable. They won. A lot. And Moreno appeared to take great pride in turning this eccentric little franchise into a national power.
Well, the Angels aren't quite as plucky as they used to be. In fact, for a few years now, they've looked like one of those soft and content teams the Angels used to abuse. In that time, the Angels have been just talented enough to contend. And just unlucky enough, or thin enough, or misshapen enough to lose at the end.
The model franchise, one that had lapped the neighboring Dodgers, hadn't gone under. It had slipped to mediocrity. Perhaps a victim of its own reputation and expectations, it began to underachieve. The philosophy lacked players. Or the players lacked philosophy. It was hard to tell which, but it wasn't working.
So, in the first month of the 2012 regular season, four weeks into Albert Pujols' 10-year, $240 million contract, the Angels were 8-15. When the season ended with the Angels in third place in the AL West, many rued what April had done to them. By this April, in the first days of Josh Hamilton's five-year, $125 million contract, it was agreed that the Angels would not – could not – endure another miserable start. Not with the Oakland Athletics being who they are. Not with the Texas Rangers around. Not with so much at stake.
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And yet on the second Friday of April, before a suddenly apprehensive crowd at Angel Stadium, the Angels lost again. They are 2-8. They have lost five in a row, including a home sweep at the hands of the Oakland Athletics, and most recently a 5-0 debacle against the Houston Astros, newbies in the AL and by some assessments among the least competent major league teams assembled in years. Nevertheless, the Astros stand two games ahead of the Angels in the AL West, primarily because after a week-and-a-half they've out-hit and out-pitched the Angels.
There's talent everywhere. Maybe not as much in the bullpen. Or the starting rotation. Jered Weaver is hurt. So's Ryan Madson. Honestly, the pitching has bordered on dreadful. On Friday night Tommy Hanson allowed five early runs and Astros starter Bud Norris, he of the career 5.39 road ERA (6.94 last season), threw seven shutout innings and didn't allow a baserunner as far as second base. The Angels had four singles. The game ended on a foul out to the Astros' catcher with one out, because Hamilton, believing the Angels were one out closer to the end than they actually were, put his head down at first base and was standing at third when Jason Castro caught the ball.
Moreno watched at least part of it from his suite behind home plate. From near the right-field foul pole, I wondered what he saw. I wondered if he thinks April 12 is too early to consider conclusions, if not draw them. I wondered if what he saw was not two weeks of unacceptable play, but three years and two weeks of unacceptable results. And then what he thought of the team his general manager, Jerry Dipoto, put together, and the methods in which his manager, Mike Scioscia, runs it.
Moreno hasn't spoken to me in more than a year, so I was left to wonder: What does he see? What is his next move? Is he satisfied with Dipoto, his GM of 18 months? With Scioscia, who's been on the top step here for 14 seasons? Whose contract runs through 2018? Would he sit and watch the Angels, his Angels, get kicked around by the Astros for a night? What about for a weekend? Will he watch them get kicked around by the AL West for a fourth season, if that's what's to come?
Scioscia is not simply one of the best managers in the game. He is one of the best managers of his generation.
Assuming the pitching turns, and gets healthy, the Angels are one of the best teams in the game. There's too much talent to consider otherwise.
But what matters, what really matters, is what Moreno thinks. And I wonder what that is. I wonder if he's patient enough to sit through another April like this. So I wonder, Arte Moreno, what now?
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