When Arte Moreno bought the Anaheim Angels in 2003, I immediately paid attention.
It was kind of hard not to when the billboard billionaire handed out giant red hats with the Big A team’s trademark and then wore one to his first press conference.
The huge hat was symbolic in many ways. It celebrated Moreno’s Mexican-American heritage and his status as the first Latino majority owner of a major professional sports franchise. It seemed that Moreno approached his market not as a broker but as a fan. At the same press conference, he announced his first official move – lowering beer prices at Angel Stadium.
The choice of chapeau was also a promise. On the right head, a sombrero is a beautiful thing, the regalia of heroes and heroines in Mexican song and film. Men and women who understand his story bear his weight with pride and reverence.
On the wrong person, it makes the wearer look like a buffoon.
Moreno wore it well at first.
He signed future Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero and ace Bartolo Colón in 2004, while lowering ticket prices. He did draw national ridicule for renaming his team the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, but fans mostly forgave him because the Halos became something they had never been before—winners.
As an Anaheim native and lifelong Orange Countian who went to several Angels games every year in my teenage years but never became a bona fide fan, I looked at what Moreno was creating with hope. My cousins generation grew up almost exclusively Dodgers fans because we never saw ourselves in the Angels. It wasn’t necessarily a Latino thing. For us, the Dodgers have been a model of success from the broadcast booth to the field. The Angels weren’t, and who wants to associate with losers?
But Moreno had one hell of a personal story — a Mexican kid from a Tucson barrio who bought a professional sports franchise, hired some of the game’s biggest stars (who just happened to be Latino) and succeeded in the national pastime. He offered something you rarely see in sports owners: inspiration. And if a Mexican could find respect in a famously racist place like Orange County, maybe my hometown would take a turn for the better.
I started going to the field again as an adult and started playing for the team. Moreno was a constant presence in the stands, strutting around like former New York Mayor Ed Koch as he asked fans if he was doing a good job. The Dodgers were spending their wilderness years under owner Frank McCourt. There was a real chance the next generation of my cousins would wear Angels red instead of Dodgers blue.
And then, just as Moreno became one of the best owners in baseball, he became one of the worst.
The evil side of the sombrero caught up with him.
There were hints of this shift from the start, when Moreno told my colleague Bill Shaikin that he felt no responsibility to help Latinos enter his rarefied world.
“I’ve always tried to open doors for anyone — male, female, black, green, brown, whatever,” she said at the time. “I’m not going to say, ‘I’m in here now and we have to separate ourselves,’ when what we’ve tried to do in America is open the door for everybody.”
I don’t believe in race-based affirmative action either. But if you’re not going to lift people up, then you better bring the best. Instead, Moreno opened the doors to buffs who, like Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage, turned the team into a laughing stock again.
He ignored baseball scouts and loaded the team with huge contracts for high-priced players who, predictably, underperformed. When the Halos somehow lucked out with Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani — the best player in baseball and the most exciting, respectively — Moreno suddenly became a cheapskate and didn’t surround them with a contending team.
While his team was down during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Moreno appeared with Donald Trump at a Latinos for Trump luncheon in Phoenix and told the crowd it was “very necessary” to vote for Trump.
Even more disturbingly, Moreno has allowed his front office to stage increasingly ridiculous promotional events. Snuggies dresses. ’70s Throwback Weekend. Four separate Ohtani memorabilia this year. On Cinco de Mayo in 2015, more than 25,000 fans set a Guinness World Record for the most people simultaneously wearing… sombreros.
Fortunately, Moreno announced this week that he is exploring selling the Halos after nearly 20 years of ownership.
“Throughout this process,” he said in a press release, “we will continue to run the franchise in the best interest of our fans, employees, players and business partners.”
This would be the first time in years that Moreno put all of our interests first.
He had an incredible opportunity to be a transformative owner and instead suffocated, as his team does. His prejudices came true: No one thinks of him as a Latino owner anymore. The Latins never embraced him, nor did the Fotostefani. Everyone just thinks of him as a bad owner, period.
So what happened?
Everyone is pointing to 2012 as the beginning of the end. It was then that he signed with the Cardinal of St. Louis, Albert Pujols, a 10-year contract, just as the star’s career was beginning to decline. Instead of learning his lesson, Moreno doubled down and continued to sign past players such as Josh Hamilton, Tim Lincecum and Anthony Rendon. None completed.
2012 was also when downtown Anaheim burned in the wake of protests against police brutality. The mini-riots exposed the city’s disparities with the world’s Latino majority and showed that a civic leader was desperately needed to step up and offer hope.
That leader could have been Moreno. He never uttered a word. Instead, he began looking for a new ballpark under threat of the Halos relocating, a move that upended Anaheim’s policy.
In 2013, the City Council approved a deal that would lease the parking lots around Angel Stadium to Moreno for a dollar a year while allowing him to keep all of the revenue from whatever he decided to develop — ostensibly to finance the construction of a new park. Civil unrest stalled that deal, but keeping the Angels in Anaheim became an election-year plank on which Republican council members raised their sails — and on which Moreno cynically blew hot air.
In 2019, a new board agreed to sell Angel Stadium and surrounding parking lots to a company owned by Moreno for $150 million in cash, and Moreno promised to build affordable housing and a park. The deal was so shady that California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta fined Anaheim $96 million earlier this year for violating the state’s public land use law, while an Orange County court report accused the council of “betrayal[ing] its components”.
In matching code, the FBI earlier this summer announced a massive investigation alleging that a “caval” secretly ruled Anaheim and used its influence to get the city council to rush the sale of Angel Stadium. It has already led to the resignation of Mayor Harry Sidhu, who an FBI affidavit says passed classified information to the Angels and approached an unnamed group executive about an illegal $1 million campaign donation. The council then voted against the Angel Stadium deal. True to form, Moreno’s company initially pushed for the sale before experiencing a rare moment of common sense and backing down.
Good riddance, Arte Moreno. You could be someone, in an area that needed it badly. Instead, you leave my beloved Anaheim in political ruins and the Angels a joke. May you take your sombrero of shame on the way out of here.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.