Reggie Willitsbelts a majestic fly ball toward the leftfield foul pole in Baltimore's CamdenYards, a typical blast during batting practice, when coaches groove 55-mphmeatballs and players jovially pump balls out of the yard to massage their egosand amuse their teammates. But leaning on the back of the batting cage, LosAngeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia is not amused.
"Hey!" he yells at his 26-year-old rookie outfielder. "What wasthat? That's going to cost you."
Willits hangs his head, chagrined at having been busted. He's a speedy,switch-hitting leadoff man who made it to the majors last season three yearsafter being drafted in the seventh round--and two years after he whiffed 112times in A¬†ball--because he shortened his stroke, developed patience atthe plate and became a pest. Willits has not hit a home run in his first 276big league at bats, but he is a perfect little Angel because at the All-Starbreak he led all rookies in on-base percentage (.408), walks (40) and stolenbases (18, in 22 attempts).
Scioscia is soinsistent that Willits not swing for the fences that he instituted a rule: Forevery home run he hits in batting practice he must run a lap around theballpark. When Willits lofted a ball over the wall at Yankee Stadium in May, hecomplained to Scioscia that the short porch in rightfield was to blame. Theappeal was rejected. Willits ran his lap. This time, in Baltimore, Sciosciacommuted the sentence because Willits's drive had curved foul.
"I've had torun a bunch of laps," Willits says, "but not that many [lately]. Linedrives and ground balls. That's what I need to be working on."
Slugging outfielderand perennial MVP candidate Vladimir Guerrero is the Angels' franchise player,but Willits is the freshest symbol of how, under the discipline of Scioscia andthe direction of owner Arte Moreno, the Angels are becoming baseball's modelfranchise. With their deep pockets, robust farm system, blossoming major leaguetalent and organization-wide culture of unselfishness, they have what it takesto contend for years, perhaps even to dominate in a way that no club has sincethe Atlanta Braves and the New York Yankees in the 1990s. Willits is just oneof many promising L.A. regulars to advance through a development systeminspired by Scioscia's principles of aggressive baserunning, smart situationalhitting and strong defense--elements of team play known as the Angel Way.
"Coming upthrough the minor leagues, everything is charted," Willits says. "Howmany times you go from first to third base, every time you break up a doubleplay, every sac bunt and every hit-and-run you're given. . . . This is what theAngels do. It's easy for people to buy into it because you see theresults."
A manager who makesbig leaguers run laps? An owner who cuts beer prices and who routinely checksthe cleanliness of the Angels Stadium bathrooms, each staffed by an attendant?Players hell-bent on flying from first to third instead of relying on thethree-run homer? (Good thing, too: At week's end the Angels had been waiting540 at bats since their last three-run dinger.) And a team that wins, turns anice profit, plays in perfect weather and pays top dollar, with Yankees thirdbaseman Alex Rodriguez widely rumored to be the next free agent to come underits spell? No wonder Moreno, sipping a beer and munching peanuts from a thirdbase field box, could smile even as his club was losing 14-9 last Friday atYankee Stadium.
"In baseballterms we're just getting this toward second base," says Moreno, 60, who inMay 2003 purchased the franchise for $184 million--or $476 million less thanthe Boston Red Sox had gone for only a year earlier--and immediately beganoperating it as a big-market club spending big-market money. (According toForbes, the Angels are now worth $431 million.) "This is just the start ofthe process."
For reasons rangingfrom increased revenue sharing and a crackdown on performance-enhancing drugs,the game has changed in this century. Few teams have played it better in theseason's first half than the slash-and-dash Angels. Los Angeles reached theAll-Star break in first place in the AL West at 53-35 (the best record infranchise history after 88¬†games), and the team's profile bodes well forthe second half.
With solid startingpitching (the 42¬†wins from L.A.'s rotation are second only to the RedSox') and a balanced, creative offense reminiscent of National League baseball,the Angels can not only stay out of prolonged slumps but also marshal thepreferred weaponry for postseason play. And stocked with players in or enteringtheir prime--shortstop Orlando Cabrera and centerfielder Gary Matthews Jr. arethe oldest every-day players, at 32--the Angels have the look of recentchampions. Only four regular players (DHs excluded) among the past five titlewinners were 33 or older halfway through the season: Tim Salmon, 33, of the2002 Angels; Bill Mueller, 33, of the '04 Red Sox; and Jim Edmonds, 36, and SoTaguchi, 37, of the '06 Cardinals.
"The onecommodity they have that everybody wants is pitching," says an AmericanLeague G.M. "But what they also have now is an owner who wants to win. Imean, really wants to win. All owners would like to win, but at the end of theday there are only about four franchises where the driving force is an ownerwho, from the minute he wakes up, is all about whether he wins or loses thatday. I would put the Yankees, Boston, Detroit and the Angels in thatclass."
Arte Moreno is theoldest of 11 children, the son of a Tucson printer. As a child, Arte furtivelylistened to World Series games on a transistor radio in school, rooted for theYankees and second baseman Bobby Richardson, and, until the Morenos couldafford their own TV, walked to a neighbor's house to watch Game of the Week onSaturday afternoons. Moreno grew up to be a billionaire, largely through hisoutdoor advertising business. He purchased a minority stake in the ArizonaDiamondbacks, but when he was rebuffed in his bid to turn it into thecontrolling interest in 2001, he turned his sights on the Anaheim Angels,purchasing them from Disney in '03.
Says Moreno, "Iknew before I bought the team that we had to think bigger than the box that wasAnaheim, break down the walls of that box and establish the Angels for whatthey should be: a team from the second-largest market in the country, thegreater Los Angeles area."
Moreno officiallyrenamed his club the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, a switch that withstood acourt challenge from the city of Anaheim and tipped off baseball to the man'sambitions for the franchise. In four years Moreno has raised the number oftelevised Angels games from 90 to 150, increased local media revenues from$12¬†million (26th in baseball) to $60 million (third), moved from amid-market payroll of $79 million (12th in baseball) to an elite one of $109million (fourth), grown his season-ticket base from 12,000 to 30,000 (yieldingthe franchise's only four years with attendance in excess of three million) andput the club on track for a fourth straight winning season (a first in teamhistory). Since 2004, Moreno's first full season of ownership, the Angels havewon more games (329) than every team except the Yankees (334) and the Red Sox(332).
Moreno has pulledoff such growth while maintaining Angel Stadium as a place for what he calls"fun, safe, affordable family entertainment." In his first day on thejob, Moreno famously cut the cost of beer by as much as 20%. He's even prouder,though, that he hasn't raised the price since. When Moreno learned that thecheapest cap at the ballpark was $19.95, he ordered concession stands bestocked with $6.95 Angels caps so that kids in lower- and middle-incomefamilies could go home with a souvenir. His average ticket price of roughly $20is one of the game's better deals. "We're branding three things: Angelsbaseball, the a in our logo and the color red," said Moreno, who ceasedmaking the confusing uniform and logo changes favored by previous ownerships.(Periwinkle, anyone?)
He is also brandingstability, having remained loyal to the two top baseball decision-makers heinherited: general manager Bill Stoneman and Scioscia, who is signed through2010. "The church says, Build your church atop stone," Moreno says."You need a solid foundation. Everything I've done businesswise is fromknowing you have to have stability with your top management. If you don't havestability there, the rest of your employees are saying, Are we in transition?Or, What's going on?"
Stoneman andScioscia learned about Moreno's commitment to winning just two months into hisownership, when they informed him that ineffective starter Kevin Appier hadbecome a drag on the team. Moreno accepted that Appier should be released, thenswallowed the $16¬†million left on his contract. No owner, to that point,had eaten that much money on one deal. "I contended from Day¬†One thatit is the baseball people who make the baseball decisions," Moreno says."They came to me and said they thought it wasn't going to work out. You'restill paying him, whether he's on the 40-man roster helping you ornot."
That winter, hisfirst as a free-agent shopper, Moreno shelled out $146¬†million. Heacquired pitchers Bartolo Colon and Kelvim Escobar, outfielder JoseGuillen--whose suspension, after a run-in with Scioscia one week before the2004 postseason, Moreno also agreed to--and Guerrero, who signed a $70 million,five-year deal that, at Moreno's insistence, was going to be pulled from thetable 48 hours after it was made. Last year he spent $76 million on Matthews,DH Shea Hillenbrand (since released) and relievers Justin Speier and DarrenOliver. Cabrera ($32 million over four years) came aboard in December 2004.
It is that kind ofaggressive spending that has led to speculation that Rodriguez, if he opts outof his contract at the end of this season, could be an Angel in 2008. (Indeed,as A-Rod helped beat the Angels with three hits, including his 29th home run,fans seated near Moreno last Friday shouted to him, "Is this anaudition?") Moreno says he considers it "unwise and difficult" tohave one player consuming "20 to 25 percent of your payroll," whichRodriguez would surely do if, as baseball executives speculate, he commands aneight-year deal between $200 million and $240 million.
"I bought theteam for less than that," Moreno says, laughing. "If a player like thatgoes down, what else can you not do because you have that much tied up in oneplayer? The other thing is you always want to balance being competitive withaffordability. That's the Number 1 concern: keeping Angels baseball as anaffordable family option, because in Southern California it's not that you'rejust competing against the Dodgers. You're competing against the weather andall the things there are to do."
While Moreno isn'tsignaling a run at A-Rod--that would be tampering--Stoneman has tried for twoyears to find a power bat to complement Guerrero's. The G.M. struck out in hisbid to sign free-agent first baseman Paul Konerko after the 2005 season; nearlyhad a trade done for Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada (for starter Ervin Santanaand infielder Erick Aybar) at the trading deadline last year before Baltimorepulled out; floated trade proposals for Colorado Rockies first baseman ToddHelton last winter before learning Helton, who has no-trade rights, preferredan East Coast club; and last winter put in a seven-year, $118 million bid forAlfonso Soriano, who took $136 million over eight years from the ChicagoCubs.
"Actually,"Scioscia says, "not getting that big bat has allowed the emergence of someplayers, like [second baseman] Howie Kendrick, [first baseman] Casey Kotchmanand Reggie Willits, and the reemergence of guys like Orlando Cabrera and [thirdbaseman] Chone Figgins. The bottom line is that we have the best lineupchemistry I've seen since I've been here, even better than in [the worldchampionship season of] 2002. Right now we're able to pressure teams everyinning, and it's very rare that you see teams able to do that without thethree-run homer or without really driving the ball."
"We are,"Cabrera says, "like a pack of dogs. We're always looking toattack."
According to theElias Sports Bureau, the Angels are the only team in baseball with a winningrecord when they don't hit a home run (24-23), and they have the second-lowestpercentage of their runs accounted for by homers (23.8). They put the ball inplay (only two teams have struck out less often in the AL), steal bases (78,first in the league) and hit well in key spots, such as with runners in scoringposition (fifth).
"The mostimportant stats for us are on-base percentage, hitting with runners in scoringposition and getting from first to third on hits," Scioscia says. "Iwas one of the slowest runners in the National League when I played. But therewere certain balls where even I just knew, with a good secondary lead and goodread, I had to get to third base."
The Angels haveturned themselves into an exciting brand, home runs be damned. Their stadium,once infamously home to empty seats or beach-ball games, has become a truemajor league environment in which fans appreciate a hitter who moves a runnerfrom second to third with no outs. "It's a baseball crowd now," saysOliver, a 14-year veteran, "way different than in the '90s, when peoplecame because it was just something to do. The fans, they're into the baseballnow."
Moreno's run ofwinning seasons should have some legs too. Baseball America has ranked L.A.'ssystem among the five best stocked for five years running. Third basemanBrandon Wood, 22, projects as a 30-home-run hitter. Pitchers Nick Adenhart, 20,and Joe Saunders, 26--"He'd be our Number 3, and he can't even crack theirrotation," says one AL coach--could join John Lackey, 28, Jered Weaver, 24,and Ervin Santana, 24, as homegrown starters. The Angels control the contractsof all their key players through 2009 except for those of Colon, who iseligible for free agency after this season, and Cabrera, who can leave after'08.
"We believewe're positioned to have a good shot at making the playoffs, which gives youthe opportunity to win the championship, every year," Moreno says. "Wedon't want to be like some teams who bump up their payroll, and then when itdoesn't work, they go like this. . . ."
Moreno puts hisbeer down and, with his right hand, mimics the rolling of waves over a sea.
"Instead of,which is the way we want it, like this. . . ."
Moreno smiles,flattens his hand and, while seated in the home of baseball's last dynasty,traces the 45-degree launch angle of his business plan: a straight, smooth rideto the top.
Tom Verducci talks hitting with Hall of Famers Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr.
ONLY AT SI.COM
Guerrero (27) is the most celebrated Angel, but his supporting cast gives thelineup a chemistry they've never before had.
Willits has been an on-base machine, but the rookie has paid a price whenswinging for the fences.
A career .273 hitter, Cabrera has a .328 average in the first half to go withhis usual Gold Glove-caliber defense.