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His Devilish Vision

Times staff writer.

This is not a country club. It’s a dive, really.

Arte Moreno pulls into the parking lot of the Tee Pee Tap Room, then squeezes his car into the last available space. To him, tender loving care is for people, not cars, even this sparkling silver convertible, a 1969 Chevy Impala with its original AM-FM radio. He lets his 16-year-old son drive it.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. April 9, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday April 09, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 65 words Type of Material: Correction
Baseball -- An article in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times Magazine on Angel owner Arte Moreno incorrectly stated that Preston Gomez, one of the Angels’ senior baseball advisors, was the first Latino manager in major league baseball when he was with the San Diego Padres 35 years ago. Al Lopez was the first full-time Latino baseball manager when he managed the Cleveland Indians in the 1950s.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 11, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 68 words Type of Material: Correction
Baseball managers -- The article in the April 4 Los Angeles Times Magazine about Anaheim Angels owner Arte Moreno said that Preston Gomez, one of the Angels’ senior baseball advisors, was the first Latino manager in major league baseball when he was with the San Diego Padres 35 years ago. Al Lopez was the first full-time Latino baseball manager when he managed the Cleveland Indians in the 1950s.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 25, 2004 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 4 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
The article “His Devilish Vision” (April 4) incorrectly stated that Preston Gomez, one of the Angels’ senior baseball advisors, was the first Latino manager in major league baseball when he was with the San Diego Padres 35 years ago. Al Lopez was the first full-time Latino baseball manager when he managed the Cleveland Indians in the 1950s.

“Nothing fancy about it,” he says. “It’s just old. I’m not into having something you can’t drive.”

It’s his weekend car, he says, and weekends are about playing ball with his son. His trunk might be better stocked than your local sporting goods store--bags of bats and gloves, buckets of baseballs. He owns one golf course in Phoenix and lives on an estate near another, but he’s got a batting cage to go with the putting green in his yard.

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When he sold ads by day and played softball at night, decades ago, his team traditionally adjourned to the Tee Pee after games. He sold so well, for others and then for himself, that he sold his company, made his fortune and bought the Anaheim Angels.

He still drinks here, at the Tee Pee, across the street from Karl’s Custom V-Dub, Volkswagen Service and Repair--an everyman’s hangout in an everyman’s part of Phoenix. Moreno enters through a side door and strolls through the kitchen, greeting dishwashers and busboys in English and Spanish.

The Tee Pee serves inexpensive Mexican food--you can get lunch for two and a couple of cervezas and still get change for a twenty. Above the bar, neon beer signs compete for wall space with television sets.

Moreno grabs a table near the bar so he can keep an eye on the TV, and on his beloved University of Arizona basketball team. He invites a friend to join him for a few minutes; soon they’re talking sports and swapping jokes and exchanging high-fives.

The proprietor, a gentleman everyone calls “Zippy,” stops by the table with a Tee Pee T-shirt and points to the logo, which features a bull on his hind legs hoisting a margarita.

“A bull with a buzz,” Zippy explains proudly.

Moreno laughs. He loves this place so much he opened a Tee Pee of his own downtown, near the Arizona Diamondbacks’ ballpark. Business is better here, at the original. President Bush ate here in January, with Moreno and the owner and manager of the Diamondbacks stuffed into a booth a bit cozy for four grown men. The president wanted to talk baseball on a swing through town, and Moreno--a Bush supporter--almost decided not to take the call from the White House because he did not recognize the number displayed on his cellphone.

As Moreno dips into the chips and salsa and sips from his Michelob, he puts on his game face. This son of Arizona is now the man who would be king of baseball in Southern California. He spots the Dodgers 45 years of tradition, but he yields nothing to them. He did not enter this two-team baseball race to finish second.

The owner asks: “Why wouldn’t you want to be No. 1?”

Meet Arte Moreno--ambitious businessman and regular Joe; a rich guy with beer taste and a champagne budget; a groundbreaking, bilingual, bicultural owner savvy enough to court Latino fans without alienating white ones.

On the first full day of the first spring training under his ownership, Arte Moreno escorts his wife onto the field--a couple all but stepping out of the pages of an Angel merchandise catalog. Arte, 57, wears a black polo shirt with the team logo and black slacks. Carole, 47, wears a necklace with the team logo, a cream-colored sweater and pants and a black blazer.

As he steps across the foul line, Moreno leans down and grabs a baseball. He twirls the ball, in one hand or the other, as he walks. He crosses the field and heads into the parking lot. He says hello to a security guard, a coach, a parking lot attendant. He stops to pick up several pieces of litter, then detours to a trash can to deposit them. “Will you sign this?” one fan pleads, holding a ball. “Your players wouldn’t.”

Moreno signs for that fan and anyone else who asks, including one who apologizes for presenting a baseball card with a picture of a player.

“They haven’t come out with your cards yet,” the fan explains.

On the other side of the parking lot, on another field, practice is getting underway. Moreno can’t wait. That morning he had told his 15-year-old daughter that the first day of spring training is as exciting as the first day of school. Now, with his wife by his side, he leans forward on the field, watching his players go through the frankly boring motions of stretching and playing catch.

The couple met in 1979 in a bar in Kansas City, where he had moved from Arizona for his job. She asked whether he might like to accompany her to a baseball game. Talk about magic words.

“I was playing a lot of softball, doubleheaders a couple times a week and on weekends,” he says. “Anybody else I dated didn’t really care for that.”

After the corporate ladder took the couple from Kansas City to New Jersey, Moreno decided to stop climbing and go home and be his own boss. In 1984, he approached Bill Levine, founder of Outdoor Systems, a small billboard company in Phoenix.

Levine offered Moreno a job; Moreno offered to buy the company. The two partnered and prospered, expanding nationally and buying up other advertising companies until selling Outdoor in 1999 in a stock deal worth $8.3 billion. Pretty nice return for Moreno, who broke into the ad industry selling billboards and couldn’t afford to keep his first commission check as a memento because he needed the $2.25.

Even as a newfound billionaire, Moreno was virtually anonymous, and happily so. One year ago, he called one of his oldest friends, Dennis Kuhl, a former colleague at Outdoor. The two first met in 1969, as Alpha Tau Omega fraternity brothers at the University of Arizona, hanging out, drinking beer and playing intramural sports.

The Wildcats were playing in the NCAA basketball tournament at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim, and Moreno invited Kuhl to the game. At halftime, as the men walked the concourse, Moreno elbowed him and pointed to a boy wearing a bright red Angel cap.

“Hey, Denny, good-looking hat, isn’t it?” Moreno said.

“Yeah, come on, let’s get back to the game,” Kuhl said.

Not so fast, Moreno told Kuhl. He pulled his friend aside and lowered his voice to a whisper.

“I’m buying the Angels,” Moreno said. “Don’t tell anybody.”

One month later, on April 15, the deal was done, for $183.5 million. Moreno had previously indulged his lifelong love for baseball with a stake in his hometown Diamondbacks and in a minor league team in Salt Lake City, but now he had a team of his own.

Moreno has since sold a 10% share in the team to Levine and a 1% share to Bill Beverage, who has long handled Moreno’s financial affairs and now serves as the Angels’ chief financial officer. Kuhl is the team president. John Carpino, a younger Arizona alumnus and another former colleague at Outdoor, runs the Angels’ sales and marketing operations.

“I would have come to work for Arte if it was a car dealership or a bank or a mortgage company, it really didn’t matter,” Carpino said. “He’s really a genius. He doesn’t come across that way, because I think the public’s perception of a genius is a guy with a pocket protector, but he really is that smart.”

On Valentine’s Day, thousands of fans flocked to Angel Stadium. There was no game. But Moreno, Kuhl and Carpino threw a party in the parking lot, inviting fans to celebrate the coming season: Come on out, bring the kids, meet the players. The Angels, overwhelmed by the response, cut off autograph lines for the most popular players after learning that some fans had waited two to three hours.

As the sun set, fans crowded around a makeshift stage, hundreds of them, there for the last question-and-answer session of the day. Adam Kennedy, a folk hero for hitting three home runs in the game that clinched the Angels’ first invitation to the World Series in 2002, was to arrive shortly. So was David Eckstein, the diminutive team sparkplug and teen heartthrob.

In the meantime, on the video board above the stage, an Angel helmet and a Dodger helmet did battle. The two helmets faced each other, bill to bill, then spun at ever-higher speeds, ultimately colliding in flames. From the inferno emerged an enormous Angel logo, a red A topped by a silver halo.

There you had it: Arte Moreno’s business plan.

In the audience, Kuhl beamed, his delight just short of delirium.

“We’re going to brand that ‘A’ until everybody sees it in their sleep,” he hollered.

It’s ad guys who are running the Angels now, and they’re selling the Angels as a brand name. And they want that name to mean Los Angeles just as strongly as it does for the Dodgers, with their clean and classic logo that evokes six World Series championships, palm trees swaying in picturesque Chavez Ravine, Dodger dogs and celebrity peanut vendors, Vin Scully and Tom Lasorda, Sandy Koufax and Fernando Valenzuela.

“We consider ourselves an L.A. team,” Moreno says.

So do the Clippers, but no one cares, certainly not the Lakers. Yet Moreno refuses to entertain even the tiniest bit of apprehension that the Dodgers--by building what ad men call “brand equity” over nearly half a century in Los Angeles--have defined themselves as L.A.'s baseball team, now and forever.

“Zero concern,” Moreno says. “Absolutely zero concern.”

For four decades, the Angel brand stood for futility. They lost, again and again, sometimes comically, other times painfully. They wore silver halos on their caps, then yellow halos, then no halos at all. They hired star players whose glory days had passed them by. After founding owner Gene Autry sold the Angels to Disney in 1996, they bought a star in the prime of his career, Mo Vaughn, for $80 million, the richest contract in team history. In the first inning of his first game, he tumbled into a dugout and tore up his ankle. His days of stardom were over, just like that.

In 2002, four years after Autry died, Disney dressed the Angels in red. The new logo caught fire, and so did the team. The underdogs won their first World Series, eradicating their image as losers and choke artists and transforming a traditionally passive audience into a raucous sea of red. Moreno inherited a new and improved product. In 2003, for the first time in franchise history, the Angels sold 3 million tickets.

So did the Dodgers, for the eighth consecutive year, even though they haven’t won a playoff game in 16 years. In 43 years of coexistence, the Angels have never outdrawn the Dodgers.

“The Dodgers have always had a strong following,” Kuhl says. “I never worry about the Dodgers. I’d rather have them worry about me.”

These are welcome words to the men who run the sport, annoyed and befuddled at what they perceive as the mismanagement of previous owners. Instead of tapping into a demographic gold mine, the Angels tapped into baseball’s revenue-sharing fund, designed to bail out small-market teams.

“Everyone in the game believes the Angel franchise has underachieved historically,” says a high-ranking major league executive, speaking on condition of anonymity because Autry’s widow, Jackie, retains a ceremonial role within the league.

On his first day of ownership, Moreno pledged to retain the Angels’ management team. But after promising a three-year contract to Kevin Uhlich, who rose from batboy to senior vice president of business operations in 28 years with the Angels, he fired him. Neither man would discuss why, but Moreno showed his hand with his next few moves.

He hired Kuhl and Carpino, with orders to make sure employees understood they were now working for a team that identifies itself with Los Angeles. He had the “Anaheim” stripped from the uniforms, the web site, the tickets and the pocket schedules. Now they are the Angels, period, no town attached.

“We want to get all our staff--and everybody else--to understand we’re a major-market team,” Kuhl says. “It’s a culture thing.”

But even in the glow of 2002 and the afterglow of 2003, the Angels sold fewer tickets than the Dodgers and attracted fewer viewers on Fox Sports Net. The cable network will pay the Dodgers four times what they pay the Angels for broadcast rights this year, perhaps the most striking example of revenue disparity. Moreno intends to close that gap by assembling a must-see team and selling it to fans and broadcast partners and corporate sponsors across Southern California.

“He’s telling his prospective clients that he sees it as a major market and they ought to jump on the bandwagon,” says Richard Brown, Angel president from 1990-96. “But Arte Moreno ordaining it as a major market does not make it so. The team may be a very good team, but the team doesn’t change the market.”

As players scurry from one practice field to another, Preston Gomez, 81, one of the Angels’ senior baseball advisors, approaches Moreno to ask a favor. Gomez wonders whether Moreno would mind posing for a picture to satisfy family and friends back home in Cuba--the first Latino owner in major league history next to the first Latino manager. Moreno broke the ownership barrier last year, Gomez the managerial barrier 35 years ago, for the expansion San Diego Padres.

Moreno obliges, graciously but a bit uncomfortably. He does not wish to be a role model by virtue of his last name.

On the day that owners approved Moreno’s purchase of the Angels, major league officials all but tripped over each other to salute him as the first Latino controlling owner in any of the four major North American sports. With one of their own to hold the door open, sociologists proclaimed, Latinos would find more opportunity in the front office.

Whether burden or privilege, Moreno assumes none of it. He takes pride in his heritage as a fourth-generation Mexican American, but he calls himself an American. He hires the most qualified person for the job, disavowing any responsibility to extend a hand to another minority.

“I’ve always tried to open doors for anyone--male, female, black, green, brown, whatever,” Moreno says. “I’m not going to say, ‘I’m in here now and we’ve got to segregate ourselves,’ when what we’ve tried to do in America is open the door for everyone.”

Arturo Moreno grew up in Tucson, the oldest of 11 children. His parents ran a print shop where they published a Spanish-language newspaper. At home, however, not a word of Spanish was spoken.

“My parents were very, very strict about us only talking English,” he says. “My dad was a big believer that we were Americans and we should speak English.”

Moreno’s story is, after all, an American one. He was drafted into the Army, saw combat as an infantryman in Vietnam, got into college on the GI Bill and put himself through by selling shoes and driving trucks.

“He was never afraid to roll up his sleeves and work,” Kuhl says. “Nothing was ever handed to him.”

As a first-time participant in baseball’s annual auction of free agents, he handed out $146 million to buy four key players for the Angels, including $70 million for the best player on the market, outfielder Vladimir Guerrero, and $51 million for the best pitcher, Bartolo Colon. (The team also signed pitcher Kelvim Escobar and outfielder Jose Guillen.)

All four hail from Latin America, three from the Dominican Republic. Guerrero rejected a higher bid from the Baltimore Orioles, he said, in part so he could play for baseball’s first Latino owner. Colon signed with the Angels after a sales pitch from Moreno--in Spanish.

From afar, the strategy appeared evident, and smart: As the youth of America abandon baseball for soccer, basketball, extreme sports and video games, sign the stars from Latin countries, popularizing the Angels and their bilingual owner as a destination of choice for the emerging generation of major leaguers. The demographics of Southern California, where Latinos soon will be the majority, also support such a plan.

The strategy, Moreno insists, is simple: Get the best players. Four Latinos? Strictly a coincidence, he maintains. The Angels needed pitchers and outfielders, so he bought two of each. He wooed pitcher Andy Pettitte, the New York Yankees’ World Series hero, but Pettitte only had eyes for his hometown of Houston.

Moreno could have broadened his audience by signing Japanese shortstop Kazuo Matsui, he argues, but the Angels did not need a shortstop. He hopes to attract more Latino fans, sure, with a blizzard of targeted advertising, an expanded Spanish television package and Spanish radio broadcasts on a station heard more clearly at night than the one that carries the English broadcasts. But he can sell a winner to anyone, in any language.

Fernandomania did not spread across Southern California solely because the Dodgers employed an adorably pudgy Mexican pitcher who rolled his eyes toward the sky before letting go of the ball. Fernando Valenzuela won and won and won some more, the same thing Moreno plans to do.

“For me to specifically target one nationality or one ethnic group would be against the way I was brought up and the way I believe,” he says. “Everybody is welcome in our park.”

The first impression, typically, is a vague one. Rich guy buys team, introduces himself to fans, vows to field a winner. The remarks tend to be long on platitudes but short on specifics. Moreno stood up and said the price of beer would come down. The next day it did. The so-called premium draft beers that sold for $8.50 at Thursday’s game went for $6.75 at Friday’s game.

The idea, brilliant in its simplicity and its resonance with Joe Fan, did not come from a focus group or marketing consultant. On Opening Day, two weeks before he struck his deal to buy the Angels, he watched from the stands. His wife sent him to fetch a beer, then poked fun at him as he returned, carrying the precious cup ever so delicately.

“I came back with this little beer,” he says. “The thing cost me $8.50. I didn’t want it to spill.”

One of Moreno’s pet phrases: Beer and a dog. To him, it’s the essence of the ballpark experience, a fan clutching a hot dog in one hand and a brew in the other.

He is not a child of the luxury box, of pistachio-encrusted salmon and chardonnay and a dessert cart that rolls past in the sixth inning, exquisite chocolate creations demanding attention no matter what the score of the game.

He is the kid who rode his bicycle along the streets of Tucson so he could catch the Cleveland Indians in spring training, who grew up rooting for the New York Yankees because they were always on TV. He is the young man whose buddies flocked to minor league games on bargain nights, where tickets went for a dollar, tacos for a quarter, or beers for a dime.

“You’d go get one of the cartons and put 10 beers in there,” he says. “Then you’d go walking up and all the guys would say, ‘Hey, Arte!’ You were a hero for a buck.”

He still walks the ballpark, this time as boss: His nightly ritual in Anaheim is the same as it was in Salt Lake: He strolls the concourse every night, thanking fans for coming, listening to suggestions, fielding complaints, talking to anyone who wants to talk to him.

“It’s Marketing 101,” he says. “It’s the same basic thing, whether you’re going to dinner or you’re going to buy a pair of shoes or whatever. If you don’t get good service, you’re not coming back.”

In pro sports, price hikes are the norm and price freezes are often trumpeted in press releases. But Moreno cut prices on beer and sodas, peanuts and popcorn, T-shirts and polo shirts, miniature bats and souvenir baseballs. He added a $7 cap to the collection of $25 fitted ones. He sold tickets to weekday games for as little as $3 for kids, $5 for adults. He eliminated a $5 surcharge on tickets to the most popular games.

Not everything went down. He publicly pledged not to raise ticket prices this year, but without announcement he slapped a significant increase on the best 7,000 seats in the house, sold on a season basis only and in what he calls “very high demand.”

No matter. With those few words on his first day in charge, Moreno carved out an enviable identity. He captured the imagination of consumers disenchanted with billionaire owners and millionaire athletes, escalating salaries and escalating prices.

The ad guy branded himself, if you will, as The Guy Who Cut Beer Prices.

So, on the January day that Frank McCourt introduced himself as the new Dodger owner, he was asked whether he would cut beer prices.

“What did he say?” Moreno asks.

No.

With a twinkle in his eye, he responds: “Why wouldn’t you?”

In spring training, there is no admission charge for morning workouts. As the Angels take batting practice, Moreno spots three small boys in the front row. He stops to talk to their father, in Spanish. The family drove from Mexico for this one day of spring training, Moreno says, to watch Guerrero hit.

Moreno presents an Angel cap to each boy, one of those $7 caps, with his compliments. He encourages team employees to hand out a cap to any kid who might like one.

The phrase filters through every clubhouse in America: Check your ego at the door. In the all-too-jaded eyes of his millionaire players, Moreno does.

“He’s got a humility about him that you appreciate,” outfielder Tim Salmon says.

Cheaper beer, free caps and the best players his money can buy. What’s not to like?

“I don’t think there’s anyone in Southern California who doesn’t like Arte Moreno,” pitcher Jarrod Washburn says.

He is not universally beloved. Some of the owners who spoke so adoringly of him last year shun him now, furious that he bid up the cost of talent. Moreno shrugs. He answers to the fans of his team, he says, not the owners of other teams.

As he challenges the Dodgers of this generation, his model resembles the Dodgers of the previous one, under the ownership of Walter O’Malley and then his son Peter. The O’Malleys reliably delivered a competitive team, a clean ballpark and a family atmosphere, all at affordable prices.

Says Andy Dolich, a longtime baseball marketing executive and current president of business operations for the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies: “Moreno is almost O’Malley with a different pedigree: We care, we want to make it better, we’re all about the fans, and we’re going to try to give you a positive environment aside from the electric light show and fake boulders.

“I don’t think the equation is that much more complicated. The fan understands that the ownership really cares about the team.”

Caring is lovely. But can Moreno really brand the Dodgers into submission? “If you look at the world of branding, it changes all the time,” Dolich says. “Change the packaging, change the marketing, change the quality of the product, and you can change the market.”

Still, since moving to Los Angeles in 1958, the Dodgers never have changed their logo. The Angels change their packaging all too regularly: 43 seasons, seven logos, one championship.

If the Angels don’t win, neither will Moreno. If they don’t win, Los Angeles won’t care--not the fans, not the advertisers, not the broadcasters. If they don’t win, he can’t pay major-market salaries and turn a profit.

An MBA is not required to assess the execution of Moreno’s business plan, just a glance at the standings in the sports section. Carpino is not shy about sharing the 10-year strategy.

“To be in the playoffs,” he says, “and be world champions. Multiple times.

“If we do that, everything will generate positively, from the TV and demand on down. If we’re strong on the field for the next 10 years, we’ll be strong everywhere else.”

The history of professional sport is littered with such visions. There is no shortage of businessmen who earned their fortune by making smart, ruthless decisions, then bought a team, spent wildly on players and abandoned the uncommon sense that made them rich.

Perhaps Moreno will be one. Rivals quaked when Disney bought the Angels, wary of the company’s marketing magic. But Disney, mighty Disney, couldn’t sell baseball, couldn’t make money and three years later put up a “For Sale” sign.

Moreno does not scare easily. He owned a small share of his hometown Diamondbacks and told his partners they should let him run the operation. They turned him down, so he sold his share and bought his own team.

He is an Angel now, a fan in the stands at training camp, spinning a baseball in his hand. On the field, Guerrero completes another round of batting practice. Moreno is comfortable here, in the stands, happy to hear the crack of the bat and watch the flight of the ball. There are no losers in spring training.

But Opening Day is upon us. It’s time to keep score.

“There’s been enough hype,” Moreno says. “Now we need to play.”


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