BATTLE FOR L.A. IN BASEBALL AND GEOGRAPHY

By Murray Chass

December 23, 2012

Stan Kasten, president of the Los Angeles Dodgers, declared no interest in or concern for the geographical fiction Arte Moreno concocted eight years ago. That was when Moreno hijacked his neighbor’s name and anointed his team as the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

When I recently asked Kasten, who assumed his role when a new ownership group took control of the Dodgers earlier this year, how he felt about the Angels’ name, he dismissed the matter.LA Anaheim 225

“If I had a list of a thousand things to do,” he responded, “that would be a thousand and one.”

Finding the name intellectually offensive from the day Moreno announced it, I bring it up now because of recent developments. If the name the Angels have usurped were legitimate, Major League Baseball could promote one of the highlights of the coming season as the battle for Los Angeles. The Angels and the Dodgers have certainly spent a lot of time and money creating that picture.

The Angels, however, don’t play in Los Angeles. They play 30 miles to the south in Anaheim, their home since 1966 when they moved there from Los Angeles, where they played for the first five years of their existence.

In 2005, after owning the Angels for 20 months and watching them play in Anaheim, Moreno hit upon a clever marketing ploy. Capitalizing on the proximity of the metropolis to the north, he rebranded his team as the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. He added “Anaheim” to the name only to satisfy terms of the stadium lease.

The city of Anaheim unsuccessfully challenged the name change in court. News organizations, including the Associated Press and The New York Times, meekly accepted the team’s contrived name, ignoring the geographical absurdity.

Fans initially resented the snub but eventually resigned themselves to what had become reality. They have not turned on the Angels as a result. In fact, they drew more than 3 million fans last season for the 10th consecutive year, though the attendance of 3,061,770 was the lowest in nine years.

The 2012 total, however, was more likely a reflection of the fans’ disappointment with the team’s play. The Angels disappointed themselves, not only failing to challenge for the American League West title but also falling four games short of a wild-card spot in the playoffs.

That finish wasn’t what the Angels’ owner and officials had in mind a year ago when they lured slugging first baseman Albert Pujols west with a $240 million contract and added C.J. Wilson to the starting rotation with a $77.5 million contract.

Disappointed but not discouraged, the Angels have acted aggressively this off-season. They gave Josh Hamilton $125 million to team with Pujols in the middle of the lineup and with rookie sensation Mike Trout in the outfield. They rebuilt their starting rotation. They fortified their relief corps.

Zack Greinke Dodgers 225When they finished last season, Zack Greinke was in their rotation, but he opted for free agency and moved 30 miles to the north, where a pot of gold awaited. The Dodgers snagged him with a $147 million offer.

The Angels would like to have retained the 29-year-old Greinke – who wouldn’t – but not for $24.5 million a season. As aggressive as the Angels have been, they have not conducted their business on the economic level on which the Dodgers have operated the past five months.

The Dodgers have 21 players signed for next season at a total of $213 million. The Angels have 12 players signed for a total of $127 million with no additional financially grandiose signings in sight.

This payroll business represents a new development in southern California. For the last nine years, the Angels have opened the season with a higher payroll than the Dodgers. For seven of those years, the Angels also ended the season with higher payrolls.

When next season begins, the Dodgers will be ahead of not only the Angels but also everybody else, having added in the last five months Greinke, Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, Nick Punto, Skip Schumaker, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Yasiel Puig.

The Dodgers have collected such a stunning array of expensive talent that it is easy to figure that the Angels’ expensive signing of Hamilton was a reaction to the Dodgers’ feverish activity.

Not so, Moreno has said. He didn’t say it to me because he didn’t respond to an interview request, but he told reporters at the Hamilton news conference that the Dodgers were not a factor.

General Manager Jerry Dipoto echoed that position.

“Obviously, our goal last season was to play on, but we didn’t achieve it,” he said in a telephone interview. “We wanted to improve, and we did what we thought we had to do to improve. The primary concern of Arte was to put the best team on the field that we can. We feel we’re in position to be competitive now.”

Reading or hearing Moreno’s remarks at the Hamilton news conference, one might not be convinced that he wasn’t thinking about the Dodgers when he authorized the Hamilton expenditure.

“The Dodgers, Merry Christmas,” the owner said. “I personally can hardly wait to play them.”

“Think about how much fun it’s going to be,” he added. “Dodger fans and Angel fans get to argue about whose team is better, who’s stronger, who’s weaker. … Do you know how much fun it’s going to be?”

Without Hamilton in his lineup, Moreno would not likely be making those comments so I think it’s reasonable to say there is some sort of link between the Dodgers and the Hamilton signing. On the other hand, the Angels could argue that they signed Hamilton as the best way of improving the team with the Athletics and the Rangers more important to aim at.

Hamilton was the piece de resistance for the Angels in their off-season pursuits, but he hasn’t been their only acquisition. They signed a free-agent starting pitcher, Joe Blanton, and traded for two other starters, Tommy Hanson from Atlanta and Jason Vargas from Seattle. The signing of Hamilton gave the Angels an extra hitter, and they traded first baseman Kendrys Morales for Vargas.Josh Hamilton Angels 225

The newcomers will make up three-fifths of the rotation. They will join Jered Weaver and Wilson.

For the bullpen, Dipoto signed Ryan Madson, who is expected to be the closer, and Sean Burnett.

Based on their results, the Angels seem to feel it was more important to make their big expenditure on hitting (Hamilton) than on pitching (Greinke). Only time will tell if they were right.

After the Angels signed Hamilton, a New York Daily News columnist wrote, “It’s official now: Arte Moreno is the new George Steinbrenner, as determined to make the biggest splash as he is to win a championship.”

I don’t know where the columnist was throughout Steinbrenner’s tenure as owner of the Yankees, but he apparently didn’t grasp Steinbrenner’s modus operandi. Moreno has shown he couldn’t play in Steinbrenner’s league. Having his choice of Hamilton and Greinke to pursue, Moreno chose Hamilton. Steinbrenner would have pursued and signed both.

NO RELIEF AS GENERAL MANAGER

Jerry Dipoto 225Jerry Dipoto has a clear recollection of the start of his front-office career.

“I retired March 5 and was working in the front office with Colorado March 6,” Dipoto related.

He was talking about the spring of 2001 and the bulging disc in his neck that forced his retirement from his eight-year career as a major league relief pitcher.

The 44-year-old Dipoto is in his second year as the Angels’ general manager. He is one of only three general managers who were major league players. Billy Beane of Oakland and Ruben Amaro Jr. of Philadelphia are the others.

“It’s something I always had an interest in doing,” Dipoto said of his front-office career. Most players who want to stay in baseball after their playing careers prefer to stay in uniform and become coaches. Then there is the minority of players who opt for scouting and player development, working in or for the front office.

“I had a curiosity about how things are put together,” Dipoto said. “I’ve always been fascinated by how a roster is put together. My time in Colorado gave me an opportunity to learn that. I’ve learned a lot from a lot of individuals.”

Dipoto worked for the Rockies, the Red Sox and the Diamondbacks, becoming Arizona’s interim general manager for the latter half of the 2010 season. He mentioned John Hart, Joe McIlvaine, Bob Gebhard, Dan O’Dowd and Theo Epstein as general managers from whom he has learned.

Years ago the general manager’s job was a pretty secure assignment. In recent years, however, as payrolls have escalated, the job has become volatile.

When I mentioned that change to Dipoto, he said, “My last job was volatile. The life of a middle reliever can be volatile.”

A KAZMIR COMEBACK

When the New York Mets traded Scott Kazmir, their young pitcher with great promise, to Tampa Bay in July 2004, fans were outraged and the news media ridiculed the Mets for giving away a pitcher who they believed was certain to become a major league star.scott-kazmir

Kazmir was 20 years old and still in the minors when the Mets traded him. It didn’t help the Mets that the primary player they received in return, pitcher Victor Zambrano, was a disappointment in his two and a half years with the team.

But what about Kazmir? He has not had the career critics of the trade expected.

He pitched decently for Tampa Bay for five seasons, compiling a 45-34 record with an earned run average around 3.50 in the last four of those seasons and leading the American League in strikeouts with 239 in one of them. However, in 20 starts in 2009, he struggled with a 5.92 e.r.a. and was traded to the Angels.

A 9-15 record and 5.94 e.r.a. in 2010 basically ended Kazmir’s major league career. He started once in 2011, pitched an inning and two-thirds and was released.

Last season Kazmir pitched in the non-affiliated Atlantic League and this winter is pitching in Puerto Rico. He is gone but not forgotten. The Cleveland Indians have signed the left-hander, who will be 29 next month, to a minor league contract and invited him to spring training.

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.