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THE NATION

Love of the Game Brings Angels' Buyer to Baseball

May 15, 2003|Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX — Back in 1986, when he was just an up-and-coming businessman, Arturo Moreno would park himself at the turnstile on busy nights at the ball field, tearing tickets for fans of the Class A Salt Lake City Trappers.

On a $150,000 lark, Moreno and 17 other investors pooled their cash and bought a baseball team. It was a no-name team with no-name players, but the owners dived in, shedding suits to don shorts and flip-flops, shag balls in the outfield and take pitches during batting practice.

"It was very magic ... glory days and laughs," recalled Jack Donovan, one of the investors.

Today, Moreno is poised to become owner of another kind of baseball team -- the World Champion Anaheim Angels.

The fourth-generation Mexican American who grew up the oldest of 11 children in a working-class Tucson neighborhood is now worth an estimated $940 million, a fortune he made in billboards. Moreno, 56, ranks No. 246 on the Forbes list of 400 richest Americans. And if baseball owners meeting in New York today approve his $184-million purchase of the team, as expected, Moreno will become the first Latino owner in Major League Baseball. Even before the deal is official, Sports Illustrated has listed him as the fifth most influential minority figure in sports, behind Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan.

Moreno -- whose friends call him Arte -- is an intensely private man who does not flaunt his wealth. He has no secretary, lives in a house that is not the grandest on the block, coaches Little League and spends a lot of time with his family. He rarely grants interviews and declined to talk to The Times for this story.

Until the Angels' deal is finalized, he won't reveal his plans for the team. But friends say Moreno's motivation for buying the Angels is simple: He loves the game.

"Every bit about baseball intrigues him," said Donovan, now director of spring training for the Arizona Diamondbacks. "You can tell when someone has a passion for the game. It just oozes out of him."

His favorite player was Hall-of-Famer Roberto Clemente, a Puerto Rican right fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates who was killed in a 1972 plane crash. His favorite team is the New York Yankees, who lost to Anaheim in the playoffs last October. Moreno played on his high school team and loves talking baseball, watching baseball, teaching baseball, poring over box scores and studying the baseball business.

So when George Gross, a friend and business associate, met with Moreno almost two decades ago to persuade him to buy into the Trappers -- an investment of about $10,000 -- he was an easy target.

To this day, investors, most of them Phoenix businessmen, still wax nostalgic about the Trappers over a few beers. When they're together, they can clear a room because everyone's heard the stories a hundred times.

There's that incredible 29-game winning streak, shattering a baseball record from 1902. Dave Baggott, assistant general manager at the time, said people were scalping tickets for $200 apiece and 150 journalists from around the globe were covering the games.

"We kind of relished the fact that we were sometimes referred to as the dirty two dozen, the wretched refuse," Baggott said. "We were the only team in baseball that had a bar on the back of their batting practice jerseys. Duffy's Tavern. It was like Chico's Bail Bonds for the Bad News Bears."

There's also the time Moreno stood up for a couple of Japanese athletes playing with the Trappers as part of an exchange program. When Salt Lake won the championship, Japanese managers didn't want their players coming home with special jackets and rings and an air of superiority. Moreno made sure they got them anyway.

"They're Trappers just the same as everybody else," Donovan recalled Moreno saying. "Everybody gets treated the same."

Those who know him well say his approach to coaching -- and life -- is similar.

As a coach for Little League, flag football and basketball, Moreno had a knack for making the kids feel important. He could capture their attention with a story or a pep talk, rather than a loud voice.

He didn't stress winning, but focused instead on teamwork and the fundamentals of the game, said Barney McShane, volunteer coordinator of the sports program at St. Thomas the Apostle in Phoenix, where Moreno helped coach.

"Some people just cut kids and have a smaller team -- get rid of the half dozen or so that really aren't as good," McShane said.

Moreno, the father of two sons and a daughter, wanted everyone to play. When people complained that there weren't enough coaches, Moreno recruited more dads. He even suggested finding students at a nearby junior college to pitch in.

He grew up in a working-class Tucson neighborhood in a two-bedroom house where up to six boys squeezed into a rear sunroom. He pitched in at his father's print shop, enlisted for an Army stint during the Vietnam War and returned to the University of Arizona as a marketing major. As a student Moreno and a friend began buying up rental properties.

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