ANAHEIM — The team has a new name, a new manager and a newly renovated stadium-in-progress. But baseball is baseball and rituals are rituals, so Doug Wheeler headed right for the hot dog stand as soon as Anaheim Stadium's Gate 3 opened late Saturday afternoon.
"You get here when the gates open, you go to the concession stand, then you go watch batting practice," said Wheeler, 40, of Huntington Beach, who attends about one Anaheim Angels game a month during the season. "The game's just the icing on the cake."
This year, the cake comes in a different package.
With the first home game of the season--part of the annual preseason Freeway Series with the Los Angeles Dodgers--Angels fans got their first hint of what the renovated Anaheim Stadium will look like.
They liked what they saw.
"I agree with what they're doing," said Wheeler, glancing at the view beyond center field, formerly blocked by tiers of seats. "I just hope they don't raise prices next year."
The renovated stadium will look much like the stadium as it existed before renovations in 1979 for the Los Angeles Rams. That project converted the original stadium into a giant bowl, with fans perched around the inside watching the players at the bottom.
Over the winter, work crews broke out a huge chunk of that bowl, leaving the stadium with a more open, less claustrophobic feeling, like sitting at the edge of a canyon. And if the game gets boring, fans now have an option: watching the southbound traffic on the Orange Freeway.
The renovations, expected to cost $100 million and be finished by the Angels' opening day in 1998, began during the off-season after Disney officials negotiated a deal last year in which they bought a 25% stake of the team, took over its management and got the city of Anaheim to agree to renovations.
Under the plan, Disney will pay $70 million of the renovations in return for most of the money generated by the stadium during the Angels' new 33-year-lease.
When it opened in 1966, the stadium held 43,250 seats arranged in a C-shape along the foul lines. A 230-foot-tall A-shaped scoreboard in left-center field gave the stadium its nickname, the Big A.
In 1979, the stadium got an additional tenant--the Los Angeles Rams--and seating was expanded to more than 65,000 for baseball and nearly 70,000 for football. The Big A itself was relegated to the parking lot, where it remains, serving as a beacon marking the stadium.
The current renovations are stripping football from the picture, opening the outfield back up and reducing seating to about 45,000. For now, the stadium can hold 33,000 fans and a varying number of construction workers. Team officials, though, vow that work will not take place during games or batting practice.
In fact, signs of construction were effectively hidden during Saturday's game, with some sections boarded up. The construction equipment in the parking lot was hard to miss on the way in, as were the red plastic construction helmets that ushers were forced to wear.
"I hope we don't have to wear them all season," grumbled one usher, shaking his head gingerly to avoid dislodging his hat. "They're not very comfortable."
For Karla Johnson, 29, and her brother, David Johnson, 18, both of Buena Park, there was no real rush to look at the renovations. And no real suspense, either, for the season ticket holders.
"For the last five months, we've been driving by every week," said Karla Johnson, who applauds the changes. "It's more open, and you get to see out. So far, I like it. But who knows about next year [when it's finished]?"
Irene and Bev Goody, mother and daughter, are longtime fans, too, attending four or five games a season since the Angels moved in 31 years ago. They also like what they see. And they got a giggle out of some of the oversights.
"They've changed everything so much the help doesn't know where the seats are," laughed Bev Goody, 85, of Orange as she pointed out Seat 6 in her row, which was identified as Seat 9. "They have to switch that around."
Like the Goodys, Jerry Lisiecki of La Crescenta said he likes that the stadium is reverting to its original layout. From their seats Saturday--four rows from the top row, above the Angel dugout--Lisiecki and his daughter, Sara, 16, had a sparkling view of the freeway, the Pond of Anaheim and the glimmering lights of neighborhoods fading into the distance.
He could see all the way to the past.
"In 1966, I saw Mickey Mantle hit a home run completely out of here, right there over the right field fence," said Lisiecki, a Dodger fan who still gets to Anaheim Stadium a few times a year. "He hit it all the way out. There were no seats there. There used to be this little guy on a motor scooter who'd run around and pick up the balls. In a little white hat."
By breaking out the back of the stadium, he said, the Angels not only reclaim the stadium's past, but reclaim baseball in general.
"This is the way baseball ought to be," he said. "When you go to a ballgame, you want to be outdoors."