ANAHEIM, Calif.-- They gathered in the shadow of the towering Big A that on this impossibly bright SoCal afternoon seemed to sparkle as if it were made of rubies. They gathered early at the ballpark for their first glimpse of their $154 million team -- a local news show started doing live interviews of giddy fans queuing at the ticket booths at seven in the morning. They squeezed into the stadium wearing red t-shirts that said PUJOLS KNOWS HALOS and EL MAQUINA 5. And finally, when the player they'd all come to see, Albert Pujols, the new Face of the Franchise, strutted to the plate for the first time at 7:19 p.m., in the first inning of their season-opening game against the Royals, the faithful at Angel Stadium rose as one and roared loud enough that you could hear it all the way in Chavez Ravine.
After taking two pitches, Pujols bludgeoned a fastball high into the night, and the crowd gasped -- everyone thought it was gone -- but the ball sailed foul. Two pitches later, Pujols lined out to the shortstop, into a double play. In his first regular-season game at Angel Stadium, Pujols would step up to the plate three more times, each time to rousing ovations, in the fourth (a towering pop-up to third), in the seventh (a strikeout on three pitches), and again in the eighth (to the boos of the crowd -- he was walked intentionally).
It was just another game, Pujols would say after his 0-for-3 night in Anaheim's 5-0 opening-day victory. "This won't be the last time I go 0-for-3," he told everyone in the Angels' press conference room. "We still have 161 games to go." Someone asked him if he was nervous in his first game as an Angel. "I had the same nerves that I've gone through the last 11 years of my career," he insisted. Another reporter asked what he'll remember most from his L.A. debut. Pujols shrugged. "The win," he said.
Of course, it wasn't just another ballgame. It was the dawning of a new era for baseball in L.A., the official unveiling of Arte Moreno's shiny, new Angels, baseball's new superpowers. Two hours before first pitch, the team's owner, with his wife, Carol, at his side, strolled onto the perfectly manicured field, just in time to watch his $240 million investment take his cuts for his official batting practice of the season. Moreno stood behind the cage with his arms crossed and watched the moonshots land. Angels manager Mike Scioscia walked over to Moreno, shook the owner's hand, and said, "Ready to get this started?"
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Moreno has been ready for years. He's been ready since 2003, when he took over the team and began trying to position the franchise as L.A.'s team. He shelled out $320 million over the winter, when he brought in the best hitter in the game as well as the ace of the division rival Rangers, C.J. Wilson. His marketing team littered neighborhoods throughout L.A. with billboards featuring Pujols and Wilson.
And now Pujols' Angels jersey is the third-highest selling in baseball. Ticket sales are up 13 percent from last year. And you could feel a great new energy in the ballpark throughout the night. You could feel it when three members of the 2002 World Series team -- Tim Salmon, Troy Percival and David Eckstein -- came out and threw out the first pitch. You could feel it as Jered Weaver piled up the strikeouts (the Angels ace finished with 10 K's over eight dazzling scoreless innings). You could feel it when Erik Aybar ripped a three-run triple into right field in the eighth, and broke the game wide open. And you could feel it when Scott Downs recorded the last out of the game, and the crowd rose to its feet as fireworks went off and lit up the sky.
"It was great, it was awesome," Pujols said. "The fans couldn't wait for this day, and we couldn't wait either."
But L.A. isn't Angels country --- not yet, anyway. Friday night belonged to Moreno's team, but next week, the cameras and the media horde will move on to Chavez Ravine, when the Dodgers face the Pirates for their first home game, with Magic Johnson in the owner's box. "Their fans are excited again," Angels right fielder Torii Hunter says of the Dodgers. "And our fans are excited. But in the end it's what you do on the field. The season's just starting. Whoever does it on the field will get the buzz."
The Angels didn't become L.A.'s team on Friday. But they won a ballgame, and with the win, Arte Moreno's big fat party was officially underway -- and the Pujols Era in L.A. had begun.