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Angels' New Owner Puts Fans at the Top of the Order

Billboard mogul aims to make games affordable. Local Latino activists also hope to benefit.

May 23, 2003|Kimi Yoshino and Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writers

When you're Arte Moreno -- new owner of the World Series champion Anaheim Angels and possessor of a set of keys to Edison International Field -- you can pretty much do what you want.

So in short order Thursday, his first official day on the job, the camera-shy Phoenix businessman decided to cut beer prices, gave away 35 tickets to a group visiting from Mexico and vowed to get more games on television -- and to televise more games in Spanish. Oh, and he came bearing gifts from Arizona for the team's top management: red sombreros sporting the Angel logo.

"The most important thing is to take care of the fans," Moreno said. "We want it to be an affordable experience."

Known as an intensely private man, the 56-year-old near-billionaire was self-deprecating and full of wisecracks in his first public appearance as team owner, a status that became official with Thursday's transfer of the $183.5-million purchase price. He even admitted to feeling a little worried about meeting the players later in the day.

"Right now, I'm pretty nervous about the thing," he said -- before stopping himself to joke that the players should be nervous instead.

Even before the sale was official, expectations were high. As baseball's first Latino owner, the fourth-generation Mexican American and Tucson native has attracted particular attention in Orange County's Latino community, where activists are suggesting he join local boards, create an advisory committee on Latino issues and boost after-school programs.

"He's got to be more than a Latino surname," said Amin David, leader of the civic group Los Amigos of Orange County. "He should take a look around and see what organizations really need help."

"I think we are all excited, but we don't know what to expect," said Santa Ana school board member John Palacio, a Tucson native who has followed Moreno's career. "There is not a lot that people know, because he doesn't tell a lot."

Moreno, whose grandfather once ran a Spanish-language newspaper in Tucson, has frequently said he is American first and foremost. He was criticized by some Arizona Latinos for responding in English to a question asked in Spanish at a news conference after last week's baseball owners meeting.

"When we went out into the community after that, people were very, very upset," said Felipe Corral, sports director for KTVW, a Spanish-language television station in Phoenix.

But Moreno went out of his way Thursday to show that he understands both his heritage and Orange County's fast-growing Latino population.

He talked about growing up the eldest of 11 children, crowding into the family station wagon, going to church and picnicking afterward.

"People used to say that if the Moreno family was around, it's a party," he said.

Friends say that despite a fortune made in the billboard business estimated at $940 million by Forbes magazine, he remains a down-to-earth guy who enjoys spending time with his family and watching baseball.

"He has not forgotten where he came from," said friend Jose Canchola, who was one of Moreno's co-investors in the Class A Salt Lake City Trappers when they bought the team in the mid-1980s. "The community will love him."

Moreno has already been making the rounds. During the Angels' homestand against Baltimore, the new owner said he walked through the bleachers and into the Kids Zone.

"Every night, I'll take a lap or two. See what's going on," he said.

Which is how he discovered that a large imported beer at Edison Field costs $8.50 -- "a lot of money for a beer."

"We don't want it to be a circus, but we want them to enjoy a baseball game," Moreno said.

Moreno pledged to get involved in the community, especially with organizations that cater to children and education. Through his Moreno Family Foundation, he and wife Carole gave $1.1 million in 2001 to a number of organizations, including the University of Arizona, the Arizona Science Center and Habitat for Humanity.

Moreno said he intends to expand the Angels' programs to attract children and families to games.

When he owned the Trappers, children wearing Little League uniforms got in free. "We need to make sure these kids get in the park," he said.

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