An Angel to All-Stars (continued)
Renovation by The Mouse
In 1996, the Walt Disney Co., after getting its toes wet in the sports-owning business with its cross-promotional Mighty Ducks NHL franchise in Anaheim, converted its minority holding with the team to a majority. Disney, along with the city of Anaheim -- which put up $30 million for the team to add Anaheim to its name -- immediately started the stadium renovations. The changes couldn't have come at a better time.
"The renovations took place in a real down period for the team," Gleason said. "People lost hope after 1995, like they had after the playoff loss in 1986. MLB could have [dissolved] the Angels in 1997 and there would hardly have been a peep."
When the stadium opened for the 1998 season, it had undergone a massive transformation. Gone were the upper-deck seats surrounding the outfield, allowing fans to once again glimpse the nearby Santa Ana Mountains. The entire facade of the park had been renovated, including the addition of two enormous, red Angels ball caps at the stadium entrance, a symbol of the stadium's goal of being a family-friendly venue. A new outfield video screen took the place of the previous one, which was destroyed in the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
But the biggest addition was California Spectacular, a television-friendly artifice of rocks, palm trees and geysers beyond the center-field fence. The player closest to the backdrop who gets to enjoy it at least 81 games a year -- doing his best to keep home runs from landing there -- is All-Star center fielder Torii Hunter.
"I love it," Hunter told ESPN SportsTravel.
Before joining the Angels as a free agent in 2008, Hunter was able to enjoy the stadium only as a visitor. "We wouldn't need to get there until 4 o'clock, but we'd get there at 1," Hunter said of his days as a visiting player.
It was a welcome respite from the cold cavern of the Metrodome in Minneapolis, he said.
"We were stuck indoors all the time, so when we'd see something beautiful like that, we'd want to be a part of it," Hunter said. "Now, I'm kind of spoiled."
The California Spectacular also is home to Hunter's favorite place in the entire stadium.
"Nobody knows this," said Hunter, "but there's a little bar the field coordinators and grounds crew have under the rocks. They just hang out there and have fun. That's probably the coolest thing in Angel Stadium. The little bar under the rocks."
The fan experience
"Be a good worker." This was No. 6 in Gene Autry's Cowboy Code, a series of rules one must abide by to become a "true cowboy." The rules were originally intended for the young listeners of Autry's radio show, but it's a sentiment that's stuck with the team.
"I never knew how great the fans were," Hunter said. "They're showing up. [There are 35,000] to 40,000 fans every day. I'm amazed by the fan support."
And the fans' support of the team, the reason for them to go to the park instead of just watching the game from the couch, starts with the fan-friendly stadium environment.
In last year's Ultimate Franchise Rankings from ESPN The Magazine, the Angels' "stadium experience" was ranked 16th out of 122 North American sports franchises. In the fan relations category, meanwhile, Angel Stadium placed eighth overall.
And while "fan friendly" may seem to be code for "bad place to watch a game, great place to do the wave," Angels fans are a smart group: Not a game goes by whenever the White Sox are in town that catcher A.J. Pierzynski isn't relentlessly booed, resentment left from the dropped-third-strike fiasco from Game 2 of the 2005 ALCS in Chicago.
Which brings me to my own recent pilgrimage to the park for a May 12 pitching duel between the Angels' Jered Weaver and David Price of the Rays.
During the game, as an experiment to test the celebrated friendly nature of the fans, I wore a Rays T-shirt. Not once was I mocked or ridiculed by the Angels faithful. (As a point of comparison, I don't have the death wish to try something like that at Dodger Stadium.)
In fact, one Angels fan actually inquired about the name on the back of my shirt. "Powers?" he asked. "Is that a real person or is that Kenny Powers?" It was, indeed, Mr. Kenny Powers. We bonded for a moment over the hilarity of the HBO show "Eastbound and Down" and its Kenny Powers character before he continued down the concourse for more refreshments.
Standing in line for my own food and beverage, I noticed a young lady with a clipboard paying close attention to the concession stand workers. She was tracking how long it took from when the fan placed the order to when he or she walked away with food. The higher-ups would then use the data to make the process as quick as possible.
Returning to my seats, I began struggling to balance my beer and pulled-pork sandwich in order to reach my ticket to show the usher. Instead, noticing my precarious situation, she simply waved me through.
A walk through the concourse during the fifth inning revealed that ushers stop checking tickets, except for the most expensive seats. At that point in the game, they pretty much let everyone sit wherever there's space.
It's little things like this that go a long way.
But for the most important fan-friendly feature, I'm going to let Angels blogger Gleason have the last word.
"The ample bathrooms ... it's something you don't think about,'' he said. "But when I have had 'to go' at about any other park, I realized how friendly to a fan in need Angel Stadium is."
You don't get much more fan-friendly than that.
Rick Paulas is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles who also has penned features for ESPN The Magazine, ESPN.com Page 2, McSweeney's and Vice. You can contact him at www.rickpaulas.com.