COMPETING FRANCHISES ought to encourage civic stereotyping. As in, White Sox fans order Brie, Cubs brats. Whatever. We actually aren't sure what they order. (We dine in the press box—on truffles.) The point is, the fun of baseball rivalries should go beyond the game, which, after all, is always vulnerable to dulling homogenization. Attitudes are distinct, and they are forever.
What to say about Southern California, then? One of the few remaining urban sprawls that can afford two baseball teams, one per league, the Los Angeles metroplex is eternally untroubled by opposing loyalties. The problem goes back to 1961, when the Angels were invented. Whereas Walter O'Malley had performed a land grab and situated his transplanted Dodgers close to an actual downtown that you can find on a map, Gene Autry, the Singing Cowboy who owned radio stations and ought to have known better, eventually settled on a suburban outpost 40 miles away, in a land of orange groves (that would soon give way to more suburbia) and theme parks (that would give way to more theme parks). In the process he surrendered a huge market and the possibility of a truly bitter rivalry. Have you ever driven L.A.'s freeway system? There is nothing crosstown about it.
Sure, the Angels have played some pretty good baseball, paraded their share of Hall of Famers—Carew, Ryan, Reggie—around the field, even won a World Series. But they never acquired much of an identity or otherwise surmounted their suburban status. The Dodgers, on the other hand, were at least the Big Blue, always an attendance and standings powerhouse, five World Series championships, lots of celebs in the house. Their skipper, Tommy Lasorda, hobnobbed with Frank and did Carson, and just generally established a cult of personality. By location and choice, the Dodgers represented not only excellence but the entertainment culture. The Angels? Weren't they down by Knott's Berry Farm?
But take a look now. The Angels might be the best team in baseball, they regularly draw three million fans and have the kind of consistent leadership that the Dodgers used to be known for. Is that an identity? Is it a rivalry yet? Well, probably not. The Dodgers still dominate the market by the standard metrics of sizzle. But that's changing, however slowly, no question. Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who often commutes from Los Angeles to Anaheim for home games, has been blurring the distinction ever since he left the Dodgers organization in 2000 to manage the Angels. A sturdy catcher for Lasorda in the 1980s and '90s, Scioscia was presumed to be on the way to a job filling in the Dodgers lineup card in his organizational afterlife. After a couple of seasons as roving instructor, he was managing the Dodgers' Triple A team in Albuquerque, as groomed as you could be.
October 5, 2008
Scioscia says now that he never expected to take over the Dodgers' job. "There was no line of succession, if that's what you mean," he says. And he holds no bitterness about being held at bay until the Angels' offer came, the Dodgers picking first Bill Russell, then Glenn Hoffman and Davey Johnson over him. The idea that he nurses his revenge on the 1 1/2-hour drive from his home in Thousand Oaks to Anaheim (not that he'd get to Dodger Stadium all that more quickly, let's be real) is delicious but not true.
What Scioscia has done, with the help of owner Arte Moreno, who rescued the franchise from an awful Disney synergy in 2003, is raising a few eyebrows. Borrowing heavily from Dodgers tradition, Scioscia has introduced stability throughout the Angels' organization and established new benchmarks for success. Four of his starting pitchers are homegrown, as are 26 players on his 40-man roster. And more to come, evidently, as six of the Angels' seven minor league teams have made it to the playoffs.
"We haven't reinvented the wheel here," Scioscia insists. In fact, he admits he's pretty much copied the Dodgers' design for one. In particular he's adopted the Dodgers' longtime inclination toward base-path mayhem. "That always struck a chord with me," he says, "the way they'd teach getting from first to third. Especially all those years when they had no scoring and had to win 1--0. There's an old saying: Don't make your last out at third. We're tearing that one up."
That aggressiveness is just part of his philosophy, which prods players beyond their comfort zones. "We'll get ugly outs," he says, "but it's all part of pushing the envelope." This is a vague way of saying—manager-speak—that the Angels intend to irritate the opposition to death. They have a run-differential of just +68, but their 100--62 record was the best in baseball this year.
That alone, though, has not elevated the Angels to the same realm of consciousness that the Dodgers enjoy. It's true, winning counts for a lot, but it's taken new ownership to market the team in a major league way. Moreno, who came out of the outdoor-advertising business, is a shrewd owner. His first move, aside from cutting beer prices, was to change the team name to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. "We had to break out of that box, the small, midsize market," he says. "I took a lawsuit on that one." Anaheim sued (and lost), but Moreno was firm in turning this roadside attraction of passing interest into a regional force, leveraging the influx of young families into a favorable demographic. "We're part of the metro area, part of the party."
Moreno has revealed good sense elsewhere too. When he asked for an owner's suite to be built, workers wondered where he wanted the clubhouse phone. "Are you serious?" Moreno asked. "Have you ever seen the size of Mike Scioscia?" His refusal to meddle is rooted in more than fear of Scioscia's wrath. It reflects his absolute faith in his manager, demonstrated early on. "I was ridiculed when I extended his contract so early," Moreno says. And he plans to extend it at every opportunity. "When Mike leaves, I'll probably leave," he says.
The community gets to decide on its love affairs, and it seems that Moreno's and Scioscia's efforts are now being somewhat requited. About 40,000 people materialize every night, and at least some of them used to go to Dodgers games. As far as we know, they're going just for the baseball. You get the same Farmer John dogs either place.