07/07/10 11:00 AM ET
Halos are the glue to a diverse community
Skipper Scioscia helped to bring an identity to franchise
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
Sure, the validating TV series The O.C. hit the airwaves in the summer of 2003 -- a few months after the Angels shined the spotlight on the region by winning the World Series.But for 35 years prior to that, Orange County had swelled and flourished and spread like a demographic blob with little reflection on the Angels, thank you very much. The capture of a franchise's first World Series would erupt other cities into revelry, cars honking and strangers hugging deep into the night. A couple of hours after the Angels' dismissal of the Giants in Game 7 of the 2002 Fall Classic, a reporter cruised through empty mid-evening streets (the West Coast game had begun at 5 p.m. PT) to his Irvine hotel where the desk clerk, spotting the media credential swinging from his neck, asked: "Ahh, baseball ... when is the next game?" That sort of oblivion is unimaginable now. At the time, it was nearly understandable. Where would the party have erupted, anyway? What city? Can there be a civic celebration in a region where the only Main Street is in Disneyland? This is where the Angels have made a difference, giving an incredibly-dispersed community a unifying centerpiece. The Angels have become the glue. "I can't compare it to what it was like before, because I wasn't around," said Angels manager Mike Scioscia -- the starch in the glue. "I just know the amount of support that is out there now. Fans have been waiting for this franchise to achieve, and they've come out in force, that's for sure." "The last 10 years or so, people who moved here from all over the country have become Angels fans," said Ned Bergert, the Angels' head athletic trainer who has been with the club since 1979. "People are just more cognizant of Angels stuff. Like, they'll see you go into a coffee shop in the morning in a suit and a tie, and they'll ask, 'So where are you going on the road?'" However one defines a bedroom community, that is what Orange County was to Los Angeles. Although, in this affluent case, master-bedroom community was more like it. Orange County revolved around the center of the Southern California galaxy, Los Angeles. Undefinable and often unnavigable, Orange County was less an address than a quilt of towns sewn together by freeways. There are 34 incorporated cities within the 948 square miles of Orange County, none larger than Santa Ana. With a population of 339,000, Santa Ana is No. 1 in Orange County and No. 54 in the United States. Nothing sums up Orange County's subordinate status better than the distribution of media, the megaphone of any entertainment entity: Of the major outlets servicing the Southland, all 10 TV stations, eight of nine radio stations and nine of 10 newspapers are based outside of the O.C. No wonder Buzzie Bavasi, the legendary baseball man who came West with the Dodgers from Brooklyn long before becoming the Angels' general manager in 1977, always fingered as the Angels' main competition not the rest of the American League, but the Dodgers. Reflective of their locale, the Angels had historically also been a so-called bedroom community to Major League Baseball. Transplants from the Midwest and the East Coast retained their baseball allegiances and filled Anaheim Stadium to give teams such as the Yankees, Red Sox and Tigers a distinct home-away-from-home advantage that rankled Angels players of the '70s and '80s. A snapshot from 1978 was typical: The Angels averaged crowds of 33,923 for their 11 home games against the Yankees and the Red Sox -- and 19,746 for the 70 games against everybody else. The Angels' early opportunities to galvanize Orange County unraveled into disappointments that merely dispersed people back into their provincial little corners. The 1979 Angels, whose mantra was "Yes We Can!" three decades before the Barack Obama campaign helped itself to it, were run out of the American League Championship Series by the Orioles. The 1982 and 1986 Angels both suffered historic ALCS collapses -- blowing leads of 2-0 in the five-game series of '82, and of 3-1 when the series grew to seven games in '86. The effect of those performance spikes was immediate -- and also transient, in the wake of the ensuing pits. The Angels led the AL in attendance in 1983, and ranked second in both '80 and '87. But from 1991-2001, the Angels never ranked higher than sixth in league attendance "The fan support has always been here," said Tim Mead, Angels vice president of communications in his 30th year with the club. "I remember people always saying that this will eventually be a gold mine for somebody, once we lived up to the potential. And we finally did." Since the Angels pitched their tent in 1966, Orange County population has essentially doubled, topping three million in 2008. But the population was already exploding right through those dreary '90s, without impacting the Big A. And then the Angels went red, and blue, and everything changed. In January 2002, the team's new color-scheme was introduced with a splashy unveiling, featuring red as the primary color, arguably one of the most important contributions made by Disney during its brief ownership. Aside from the obligatory Hollywood -- and as it turned out, prophetic -- references to a Hunt for Red October, the hue not only made it easier for people to identify with the Angels, they were easier to identify as being for the Angels as they painted Orange County, and certainly the Angel Stadium stands, red. Two years earlier, the Angels had swooped in for a legitimate Dodgers Blue-blood to replace Terry Collins as their manager. At the time, there was little reason to view the hiring of Scioscia as any more than the latest attempt at feeding off the Dodgers' success -- a campaign that in the past included such feeble mimicry as signing a small, underwhelming Mexican left-hander (Angel Moreno) in the immediate glow of the 1981 Fernandomania touched off by Fernando Valenzuela. Instead, the arrival of Scioscia proved to be a tables-turning event. In their first 36 years of co-existence, the Dodgers had two managers (Walter Alston and Tom Lasorda) and the Angels had 14, not counting interim cameos. The Dodgers are already on their fourth manager of Scioscia's tenure, with who knows how many more to go before his 10-year contract is up. Having a consistent face for the franchise means continuity, stability and identity. All of which, in turn, spell tradition. "It's important when fans can identify with someone. It's very important to fans to have a focal point," Mead said. "We're blessed with having Mike, in the first year of 10 more years so he'll be here 20 years. "With the Dodgers, you always knew what you got, with only a handful of changes, manager and front office, all those years. Before Mike, we were known as Reggie Jackson and the Angels or someone else and the Angels. "Now we're just 'the Angels.' Not even 'Mike Scioscia and the Angels.' What we lacked for so many years was an identity. Mike Scioscia and (former general manager) Bill Stoneman put us on the map." You study a map of Orange County, and all those city borders crisscrossing a relatively small space look like the disjointed branches of a family tree, which until recently lacked a trunk. Now the Angels have given Orange County a foundation. They are that disparate geographic family's trunk.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.