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BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN : Angels Seem to Have Found Mighty Angel of Their Own

May 19, 1995|ROSS NEWHAN

There has never been much magic emanating from the Angels' kingdom, but that seems certain to change now. One of the worst-marketed teams in sports will soon be operated by the same creative force that has turned a Mighty Duck into a national best seller.

The agreement by which the Walt Disney Co. will assume direction of the club through purchase of 25%, with an option to buy the rest after Gene Autry dies, will probably have varied impact. But it will almost certainly mean the revival of a comatose marketing and sales program throughout a densely populated area that the Angels have often ignored.

Disney Chairman Michael Eisner talked Thursday of creating a synergy between the team and his company's entertainment resources, presenting Angel fans with an experience similar to that enjoyed by hockey fans at The Pond.

Of course, the Angels come with 35 years of mismanaged baggage compared with the hungry reception that awaited Disney's expansion hockey team in a new and attractive arena.

Nevertheless, Disney's investment and involvement should provide a charge of instant electricity and impact at the gate. Whether it produces competitive miracles similar to those of its cinematic "Angels in the Outfield" may take longer to determine.

The payroll-conscious Autrys are handing the ledger to an organization that has been comparably payroll conscious in its hockey operation, while coldly raising ticket prices annually to compensate for increased costs.

Will Disney spend freely in baseball's free-agent market? Will the club's payroll ceiling be lifted?

It is too soon to predict, but the willingness of an organization that seldom makes a bad investment to plunge an estimated $130 million into a club that claimed losses of $11 million last year, in an industry racked by labor and alleged financial problems, raises doubts about the actual severity of those losses and problems. This much is certain:

* While Disney is beefing up marketing and promotion, there will also probably be an overhaul of the entire executive suite. Disney will want its own people running key departments and must name a managing general partner to receive the OK of three-fourths of American League owners and a majority of National League owners. Bill Bavasi and Tim Mead should be allowed to remain in charge of the baseball operation. They deserve an opportunity to try and deliver a winner with full-scale ownership support.

* The possibility of Anaheim building a new baseball stadium with favorable terms for the Angels, or of at least significantly improving the Anaheim Stadium lease, is greatly enhanced by Disney's involvement. The relationship between the Autrys and Anaheim has been strained by years of litigation and disagreement.

It was in 1961 that Gene Autry put his first team on the field for about $2.45 million, including franchise and player costs. If acceptance of the Disney offer--which apparently exceeded that of a group headed by Peter Ueberroth--represents the end of an era, there is sadness and irony to it.

Despite his enthusiasm, resiliency and commitment, the Angels were never able to win a pennant for Autry. A lack of continuity and direction were often fatal. Maybe it would have been different if Disney had accepted Autry's invitation to join him in the Angels' operation when the club moved to Anaheim in 1966.

The cowboy now has his pardner, but no longer will he be running the ranch.

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