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Moreno Responds to Fans, and They to Him

June 29, 2003|Ben Bolch | Times Staff Writer

The stands are a swirling sea of red with another sellout at Edison Field, this time with the Dodgers in the house. Barely an inning has passed Friday when a man inconspicuously slips out of his suite, leaving behind his wife, daughter and two sons.

It is time, once again, for Arte Moreno to check on his extended family.

As the new Angel owner steps into a brick courtyard near the home-plate entrance, a middle-aged man wearing an Angel T-shirt and cap instantly recognizes him.

"You're Arte, aren't you?" the man says, extending a hand. "We're so happy to have you here. You're the best thing to happen to the team since the Cowboy [Gene Autry, the Angels' first owner]."

In the month and a half since he purchased the Angels from Disney, Moreno has lowered the price of beer, concessions and souvenirs. He has reduced ticket prices to attract more families and children. And, perhaps most strikingly, he has added a personal touch by making his way through the Edison Field stands for an inning or two every game.

Moreno has generated many of the ideas for his fan-friendly moves during such rounds.

"You may only come here one time," he says in a soft, even voice as he takes a ramp to the terrace level. "But when you come here, I want you to have a great experience."

That's why Moreno is constantly focused on the next upgrade. He notes that the concourse outside the team store is too dark and envisions the concrete wall across from the store adorned with photos of the World Series champion Angels illuminated by accent lighting.

He observes a line snaking from a presale ticket window inside the stadium and acknowledges the need for more open windows during busy times and a television so waiting fans don't miss the game they've already paid to see.

Everywhere he looks, he sees opportunity. The empty courtyards just inside the home-plate entrance? Moreno would like to see a barbecue pit, beer stands and more team photos. "Something that says, 'Welcome to our park,' " he says.

Angel fans say their new owner has already made their time at the ballpark a more inviting experience by his mere presence.

"Who's heard of an owner walking around like this?" asks Dan Robbins, 38, a music teacher from Aliso Viejo who met Moreno earlier in the home stand. "He has no idea what it means to the fans. He approaches everyone as if they're his friend."

Upon reaching the terrace level, Moreno introduces himself to three young Latino men and converses with them in Spanish. One suggests a "Back to the '60s" night with retro-priced concessions.

Moreno politely excuses himself after a brief chat, but one of the men, Noe Posada of Los Angeles, can't resist the opportunity to express himself more fully.

"You're my inspiration," Posada says to the self-made multimillionaire who became the first Latino owner of a major sports team. "If you can do it, I can do it. I'm 23 years old, and I know you have to work hard."

Moreno nods, momentarily considering what it took to accomplish his $183.5-million acquisition of the Angels.

"Maybe in a couple of years I'll sell it to you -- cheap," he jokes, eliciting laughter.

Wearing a white cotton buttoned-down shirt that hangs loosely over his khaki pants, Moreno would figure to blend comfortably into the crowd. Except almost everyone seems to recognize him.

"Nice to meet you guys," Moreno says as fans converge around him, seeking autographs and the opportunity to pose with him for photographs

The requests for Moreno's time and attention are only beginning. A man walks up alongside him and rolls up the sleeve of his Angel jersey to reveal a tattoo of the team logo on his right arm. A guy wearing a Dodger uniform asks Moreno to sign his ticket stub, and the owner obliges.

Another man taps him on the shoulder. "Thanks for lowering beer prices," he says.

Shortly thereafter a skinny teenage boy approaches with a swagger that belies his years. "If you ever have an internship ... " he says, tapping himself on the chest.

Moreno takes a different route on his walks through the stands every game, and no two are the same. He spends much of his time in the upper decks, in the farthest reaches of the stadium.

"You walk around and meet your guests and make sure they're getting treated properly," he says.

Moreno has endorsed a fans-first approach since owning part of the Class-A Salt Lake City Trappers in the 1980s. He took tickets at Trapper games and made daily rounds of the ballpark just as he does today.

And he knows that the best way to win fan support is to be responsive.

The same fan who lavished praise on Moreno, telling him he was the best thing to happen to the Angels since the late Gene Autry, also voiced a grievance: He paid $1.50 for jalapenos as a condiment and thought the charge was excessive.

Moreno nodded and asked Kevin Uhlich, the Angels' senior vice president of business operations accompanying the owner on this night, to look into it.

Turns out the jalapenos are free -- it was unclear why the man was charged -- but the encounter shows there's no detail too small to merit Moreno's attention.

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