NEW YORK — Baseball welcomed its first Latino owner Thursday, when major league owners unanimously approved the sale of the Angels to Phoenix advertising magnate Arturo Moreno.
The Walt Disney Co. sold the defending World Series champions for $183.5 million in a deal scheduled to close next week. Moreno promised to retain the Angels' management team, vowed not to raise ticket prices next season and said he bought the money-losing team for the simplest of reasons.
"Every guy's dream is to own a baseball team," Moreno said.
While Moreno downplayed his distinction as the first minority controlling owner in the sport -- and the first Latino controlling owner in the four major North American sports -- major league officials celebrated the occasion.
As the percentages of white and black players in baseball continue to decline, Latinos made up a record 28% of major league players last year, according to a study by the University of Central Florida. Many of baseball's stars hail from Latin countries, including Sammy Sosa and Pedro Martinez of the Dominican Republic and one of the Angels' World Series stars last year, Francisco Rodriguez of Venezuela.
"With the enormous increase of Latin players in major league baseball, it's obviously appropriate that this is the sport where Latinos make their inroads into ownership," said Richard Lapchick, director of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.
One in four minor leaguers was born in the Dominican Republic, a ratio that expands to two in five as the pool expands to the Dominican, Venezuela, Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Colombia and Puerto Rico. The major leagues, tapping into a fan base widening abroad as it shrinks at home, have staged games in Mexico and Puerto Rico, with the Angels scheduled to play in San Juan next month.
Now, one year after Omar Minaya of the Montreal Expos became the first Latino general manager, Moreno becomes the first Latino owner.
"In terms of a global look at the game, it's the next step, and we're very, very pleased about the fact that we have broken that barrier," said Bob DuPuy, baseball's president and chief operating officer.
As the numbers of Latino players in the national pastime increase, so do the numbers of Latinos in the country, and quite notably in areas near Edison Field, where the Angels play. Santa Ana has the highest proportion of Spanish speakers of any U.S. city, according to census data, with Anaheim ranking fourth and Riverside eighth.
Moreno, 56, said he does not plan to market the Angels to the Latino community solely because of its heritage -- or his, as a fourth-generation Mexican-American born and raised in Tucson. The Angels' Benji Gil, himself a Mexican-American, said the mere presence of a Latino owner would no more persuade him to attend a game than "ushers wearing sombreros."
But Gil added, "If I were a fan living in the area and there would be more attention put on trying to bring the Latin community to the stadium, that would entice me more."
The dearth of minority involvement in the ownership and management of professional sports lent a sense of history to Thursday's vote. Moreno joins Bob Johnson, a black man who owns Charlotte's NBA expansion franchise, and Asian-Americans Sanjay Kumar and Charles Wang of the NHL's New York Islanders on the very short list of minorities with controlling interest in a major North American sports team.
Lapchick said Moreno's approval carried enormous importance, both symbolic and practical. The 30-team business that is Major League Baseball includes no minority public relations directors, one minority club president and two minority general managers, according to Lapchick's study. Of 198 vice presidents, 20 are minorities, including seven Latinos.
"There's the possibility that doors will open up," Gil said. "It is a big deal, even if it's just a possibility. It means something important. It's a good day for everybody."
Sports Illustrated recently ranked Moreno fifth on its list of most influential minorities in sports, behind Johnson and superstar athletes Tiger Woods, Serena Williams and Michael Jordan. Still, Moreno said he attached no significance to becoming the first Latino owner in the sport, and at one point during a brief news conference he answered in English a question asked in Spanish, although he does speak Spanish.
"I think most of us are immigrants from someplace," he said, "and I think we always try to do our best to be Americans."
While Latinos -- athletes and otherwise -- might feel more empowered to pursue a career as a sports executive with one of their own in ownership, Moreno said he did not feel a responsibility to hire Latinos for the Angels' staff or mentor them so they could network and find jobs elsewhere.