By Gustavo Arellano
The impending sale of the Anaheim Angels to Phoenix businessman Arturo Moreno has newspapers from the New York Times to London’s Financial Times predicting Orange County Latinos will go nuts over the Angels simply because Moreno is Mexican American.
“Many in the Hispanic community in Orange County don’t know anything about the man who has struck a deal to buy the Angels. But they already love him,” Valeria Godines wrote in a front-page story for the April 17 Orange County Register. “Since many in the local Latino community know little about the reclusive Moreno, they love the idea of him more than anything else.”
“It’s not just the fact that he has a Spanish name. It’s also the fact that he understands the game and is passionate about it,” a sports consultant told the Associated Press on April 16. “He can deliver baseball to a very important burgeoning market: young Hispanics.”
Such statements are true only if Latinos simple-mindedly support a team because it fields a few Spanish-speaking players. But Latinos are like other Americans: they are front-runners.
Take the case of Fernando Valenzuela. The pudgy pitcher with the massive eyeglasses and look-toward-heaven delivery was a Los Angeles Dodgers ace in the 1980s, striking out dumbfounded batters with a screwball screwier than anything thrown since Carl Hubbell pitched for the New York Giants in the 1930s.
Valenzuela’s success was especially sweet for Latinos, considering his impoverished Mexican origins. Many of his baseball-loving paisanos made the Reagan years a bit easier by tuning in to Hall of Fame broadcaster Jaime Jarrín’s dramatic narration of Valenzuela’s starts on Spanish-language KWKW-AM 1330. It was on Valenzuela’s arm that the Dodgers won World Series titles in 1981 and 1988 as well as a generation of Latino fans.
But sports franchises learned the wrong lesson. When the Dodgers tired of the south-paw’s ever-ballooning paunch and earned-run average and released Valenzuela at the start of the 1991 season, the Angels picked him up. They hoped he’d bring Fernandomania to Orange County’s growing Latino community. At first it seemed to work: 49,997 fans -many Latinos, my family included- packed Anaheim Stadium on June 7, 1991, to see “El Toro” face the Detroit Tigers.
But the Valenzuela on the mound that night was not the Valenzuela of yore. The Tigers scored four runs in the five innings he pitched. Valenzuela’s next start was even worse. The Milwaukee Brewers pounded him for five runs in just one and two-thirds innings, this time in front of only 32,515 fans. The Angels dumped Valenzuela a few weeks later.
Similar examples abound of Latino fickleness toward professional athletes in their community. In 1970, Sports Illustrated featured Mexican American quarterback Joe Kapp on its cover with the headline “The Toughest Chicano” in the summer after he led the Minnesota Vikings to the Super Bowl. But Kapp and the Vikings never became a Chicano phenomenon-the Vikings lost Super Bowl IV to the Kansas City Chiefs, 23-7. Shortstop Alex Rodríguez is perhaps the best player in baseball, yet Latinos don’t care much for him because he plays for the woeful Texas Rangers. Same with outfielder Vladimir Guerrero and his Montreal/San Juan Expos.
The Angels have had Latinos as starters for years-from Sandy Alomar Sr. in the 1970s to the two Luises (Sojo and Polonia) in the early 1990s. But Latinos didn’t care much for these mediocre jocks or the lousy teams they played for. It was only last year, with the World Series run of the Angels and the emergence of pitchers Francisco Rodríguez and Ramón Ortiz, that more Latinos embraced the team they call the Serafines.
The Angels can continue to provide bilingual signs and ticket windows at Edison Field, spend money on Spanish-language ad drives and special ticket programs, and continue to broadcast Halos games in Spanish all they want. But ultimately, the only language Latinos care about when it comes to sports is winning. And that’s a language Moreno better pick up pero pronto.
Reprinted from the Orange County Weekly, April 25 - May 1, 2003.