By dedicating more than $300 million to the best hitter and top pitcher on the free-agent market, the Angels launched an aggressive campaign to become a World Series champion — and also to win over the Southland.
The buzz created by those deals carried the off-season, and the Angels unveiled dozens of billboards starring new additions Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson that targeted historically true-blue Dodgers neighborhoods.
The timing was perfect. The Dodgers were down, having sunk in the standings while racked by the controversy of owner Frank McCourt’s bitter divorce and personal struggles that ultimately landed the team in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.
But any halo effect on the Angels didn’t last long.
Only days before the teams were to reestablish their exhibition-season rivalry in a three-game “Freeway Series” — and a week before the highly anticipated start of the regular season — the Dodgers stole a considerable amount of thunder with the announcement that they had been purchased by a deep-pocketed group that included adored Lakers icon Magic Johnson.
With that, any visions of blue states becoming red states as disenfranchised Dodgers fans jumped on the Angels’ bandwagon have at least temporarily been put on hold.
Expect a sea of red for the series opener Monday in Anaheim, but the prevailing color is sure to change Tuesday and Wednesday at Dodger Stadium, where Johnson is likely to make a hero’s appearance.
For now, the tone among executives is conciliatory, with Johnson praising the Angels for their success and for raising the competitive stakes.
Johnson said this week that he was honored to follow Angels owner Arte Moreno as a minority owner, as the first African American face of a franchise in a city where Major League Baseball started its Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program years ago.
Robert Alvarado, the Angels’ vice president of marketing and sales, said, “There’s plenty of baseball fans to go around. ... We’ll do 3 million [in season attendance], they’ll do 3 million. We don’t see it as a competition, but a friendly rivalry.”
Dodgers fans who endured the team’s crash under McCourt, the scandal of last year’s beating of San Francisco Giants fan Bryan Stow in a stadium parking lot and the recent string of superior records posted by their Orange County neighbors, have recently been on the receiving end of all the ribbing.
The Dodgers can sense how Magic changes that.
“It’s a great opportunity for this team and this franchise to get back on the right track and get some stability up front and — hopefully and more importantly — get some stability on the field,” Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier said. “That’s the key of what this whole process has been … how to make the Dodgers the best franchise it could be.”
Although work remains on that front, the Angels have sold nearly 35,000 tickets for Monday night, which marks the home debut of Pujols, a three-time National League most valuable player who led the St. Louis Cardinals to two World Series titles, including last season’s.
Moreno’s steep investment, intended to retake the game’s ultimate prize 10 years after the Angels first captured it, has prompted season-ticket sales to climb 13% to 24,000, according to Alvarado.
“There’s some great things going on in Southern California, with Arte and a new TV deal, with Pujols’ acquisition, he’s showing the fans he’s out to win,” Angels outfielder Torii Hunter said.
Hunter isn’t sure the Dodgers’ sale is as powerful a statement as what his team has done.
“I’m pretty sure people are pumped up that the right guys own the [Dodgers] … that’s a great buzz,” Hunter said. “But it’s what you do on the field that matters. We haven’t started the season yet. Whoever does it on the field will get that buzz.”
Angels left fielder Vernon Wells said he anticipates an energized Dodger Stadium crowd on Tuesday after last season witnessing the “the disconnect between McCourt and the fans.”
“Obviously, the passion is going to be back with that Dodger Blue,” he added.
During the regular season, the teams meet June 11-13 at Dodger Stadium, and June 22-24 in Anaheim.
“I think you’re going to see a lot of Dodger fans being proud of being Dodger fans,” said Dodgers infielder Adam Kennedy, who was raised near Riverside and attended Cal State Northridge.
The exhibition series also marks the long-awaited start of a regular-season routine, a welcome departure from the early morning grind of spring workouts.
“You’ll always see guys with a little more bounce in their step,” Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said.
Especially if they were raised in Southern California, like Angels ace Jered Weaver.
“It’s always fun to go to Dodger Stadium because I went there as a kid,” Weaver said. " … I was sitting out there in the bleacher seats with 15 kids from [my] Little League team [and] now we’re playing on the main field.”
“It’s come full circle.”
Full circle — a concept with which many Dodgers fans can relate.
Times staff writers Mike DiGiovanna, Dylan Hernandez, Bill Shaikin and Kevin Baxter contributed to this report.