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Covering the Bases, Angels Reach Out to Latino Fans


It's an hour before game time at Edison International Field and Jose Tolentino, the newest member of the Anaheim Angels radio team, is racing around the stadium's two-story press box like a kid locked in a candy store.

Just outside a booth reserved for the visiting team's broadcasters, he skids to a stop. "Hey, do you know that guy's name?" he asks, pointing excitedly toward a figure just inside the open door. "He used to be a player, didn't he?"

Welcome to the big leagues, son--if you can call a 36-year-old father of two "son." But then you can hardly blame the star-struck Tolentino for acting half his age. Seven months ago, he was a struggling minor-league slugger who loved the game far more than it loved him.

Today he rubs elbows with major leaguers--and former major leaguers--daily while holding down one of the top radio jobs in baseball.

In February the Angels, as part of a long-overdue campaign to reach out to Latino fans, hired Tolentino and Ivan Lara to describe their games in Spanish on XPRS-AM (1090). The station's 50,000-watt, Baja-based signal gave the broadcasters--and the Angels--an immediate presence in at least four states as well as much of northern Mexico, immediately raising the team's profile, especially among Latinos.

"It fits in nicely with what we're doing here," says Marie Moreno, Angels manager of Latino sales. "When I came to work [with the Angels in 1993], I couldn't figure out why we didn't have it. I think it really hurt us in the long run."

Although Orange County is home to nearly 1 million Latinos--and three times that many live within easy driving distance of the Angels' Anaheim stadium home--the club suspended its regular Spanish-language broadcasts after the 1991 season as a cost-cutting move.

But even before that, Angel management didn't seem to take Latino radio seriously. Announcers Ulpiano Cos Villa and Ruben Valentine, who made up the club's last full-time Spanish radio team, didn't travel with the team, as the English-language broadcasters did. Luis Mayoral, the Spanish-radio voice of the Texas Rangers, says he was once kicked out of the baseball press box and banished to Anaheim Stadium's football facility, high above the left-field line, when he showed up to describe an Angel-Ranger game.

That's changed since Disney took over the team two years ago, says Moreno. "It's a whole different spectrum," she says.

Indeed. Because Tolentino and Lara worked all 30 of the team's exhibition games this spring while KRLA-AM (1110), the team's English-language flagship, carried only selected contests, the Angels will broadcast more games this season in Spanish than in English, which may be a major league first.

Already the Angels have won over some of their most strident critics, among them Hall of Fame broadcaster Jaime Jarrin, who last summer excoriated the club for failing to do more for the Latino community.

"I was critical of them, but now, at the same time, I have to congratulate them," says Jarrin, who has called Dodger games in Spanish since 1959.

Lara, 34, spent the last seven years calling games for the Tucson Toros, the Triple A affiliate of the Houston Astros. With the Toros he perfected a broadcasting style that is both economical and engaging; while he wastes few words describing the action, he also manages to convey the excitement of the game.

But then Lara has been prepping for this job a long time. As a youngster in Ciudad Obregon, in the Mexican state of Sonora--where baseball, not soccer, is the local passion--Lara remembers listening to storied broadcaster Alfonso Araujo Bojorquez paint a word-picture of games in Mexico's Pacific League. When he and his friends gathered to play on the sandlots, Lara would absent-mindedly begin describing the action from the sidelines.

"Since I was a child, this has been my first passion," he says. "So to be able to accomplish something that I've been working all my life for is very gratifying."

Tolentino, on the other hand, literally stumbled into the broadcasting booth. A self-described "lifelong minor-leaguer and 15-minute big-leaguer," Tolentino was nearing the end of a 14-year professional career (which included just 44 games in the major leagues) when a travel agent in Hermosillo, Mexico, flagged him down on the street and asked him to autograph a promotional poster.

The agency was owned by the same company that ran the city's largest newspaper, El Imparcial, and the chance meeting led to an invitation for Tolentino to write a guest column for the paper during the 1997 Caribbean Series in Hermosillo.

During the series, Tolentino says, the ESPN television crew invited him into their booth for a couple of innings and liked him so much that they asked him back for last winter's Caribbean Series in Venezuela.

"After that," he says, "the job offers came in."

With the Angels, Tolentino's role is to complement Lara's play-by-play call with analysis and insight gained during his career as a player, yet he remains very much a work in progress. He sometimes gets facts wrong, for example, and occasionally comes across as if he is trying to fill air time instead of explaining the play. But he sounds comfortable and confident on the air, and his understanding of the intricacies of the game makes the broadcasts accessible and enjoyable.

"That's where I have an advantage," he says. "[English listeners] have Joe Morgan, all the experts. In Spanish, usually there's not a player doing radio. I want to educate. I think [if] you give a lot of information to people, they grab whatever they want to grab. Our main mission would be to have people enjoy the game as much as I enjoy it."

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