Arte Moreno a reluctant pioneer

ANAHEIM -- The problem with being the first Latino owner in major American professional sports is that everybody expects you to behave as the first Latino owner in major American professional sports. All Arte Moreno ever wanted to do was be the best.

He's made that most clear through his silence, which has tacitly portrayed him as a reluctant pioneer.

I sort of want prominent Latinos out there, voicing opinions on big issues like immigration and stereotyping. That part of me is disappointed Moreno doesn't take a more prominent stance. But I do understand where he's coming from. ... Yeah, you're proud of your heritage, but first and foremost you're an American.

-- Gustavo Arellano,
L.A.-area editor and writer

Amid the clamor and posturing over Arizona's immigration law in the past few years, Moreno -- who grew up in Tucson, spends most of his time in Phoenix and has stocked his teams with Latino stars over the years -- didn't touch it.

Pressed on the matter of his heritage, the owner of the Los Angeles Angels once told ESPN The Magazine, "I emphasize that I'm an American. I'm proud of my heritage, but in our organization, we work hard for everyone."

Moreno, who declined to participate in this story, has taken his share of hits for staying quiet. Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez tried to pressure Moreno into commenting on Arizona law, writing on the newspaper's website, "Talk to us, Arte," and contrasting Moreno's silence with the Phoenix Suns owner's decision to have his players wear "Los Suns" jerseys for Cinco de Mayo.

"I sort of want prominent Latinos out there, voicing opinions on big issues like immigration and stereotyping. That part of me is disappointed Moreno doesn't take a more prominent stance," said Gustavo Arellano, the editor of the OC Weekly and the author of the nationally syndicated column, "Ask a Mexican." "But I do understand where he's coming from. He's from a different generation than I am. His generation was taught you shouldn't speak Spanish. You should focus on English. Yeah, you're proud of your heritage, but first and foremost you're an American."

Thus far, Moreno's boldest display of his ethnicity was wearing a red sombrero on the day it was announced he had bought the Angels in 2003. According to the Arizona Republic, a huge American flag hung from a second-floor balcony of his home near the Arizona Biltmore. Moreno is unabashed in his support of Republican politics.

Is his silence on ethnic issues a calculated stance or simply a preference to separate the professional from the political? Moreno is a grandson of a Spanish-language newspaper publisher and the oldest of 11 children born into a family that moved north from Mexico three generations before he was born. Through his foundation and the Angels' community fund, he has assisted struggling Latinos in Orange County and elsewhere. But he does so quietly.

"I don't think it's a business strategy. I think it's his approach to life," said USC business professor David Carter, who works with Moreno on the board of advisors for his Sports Business Council. "I don't think he looks at himself as necessarily a Hispanic person, but as a person who understands selling products and understands the people who buy his products, whether they're billboards or baseball tickets.

"He's a businessman who happens to be Hispanic. He's not a Hispanic businessman."

Few people would question Moreno's business smarts. After serving in Vietnam and graduating from the University of Arizona, he worked his way up to be CEO of Outdoor Advertising. He and partner Bill Levine eventually sold the company for $8.3 billion in stock and assumed debt. He has at least tripled the value of the Angels since he purchased them for $182 million less than nine years ago.

Forbes ranked the Angels the ninth-most valuable franchise in Major League Baseball and estimates Moreno's net worth at $1.2 billion.

Latino fans in Southern California have come along for the ride as the Angels have seized market share from the Dodgers, long the team of choice for many Latino baseball fans in the area. Since 2001, Latino ticket sales have doubled, to 25 percent of the Angels' total.

Arellano, who grew up in Anaheim, said he used to get mocked by relatives for rooting for the Angels. He was in the stands in Anaheim when Fernando Valenzuela made his debut for the Angels in 1991. Throughout his childhood, Arellano remembers the only other Latinos at Angels games being stadium workers.

"Obviously, it was a ploy to get more Latinos in and it worked," Arellano said. "There were 45,000 people there, half of them Mexican immigrants and their sons, all rooting for them. It meant something for us to do that."

In 1991, the Angels needed gimmicks. They had made the playoffs just three times since their founding 30 years earlier. Now, many Latinos in the area root for the Angels because they win. Since 2002, the Angels have qualified for the playoffs six times, won one World Series and reached the American League Championship Series three times. In the same time, the Dodgers have made the playoffs four times and haven't won a World Series since 1988.

Moreno shifted baseball demographics in Southern California even further south this winter, when he signed superstar slugger Albert Pujols to a 10-year, $240 million contract. That move won't slow the traction the Angels have gained with Latino fans. Pujols is from the Dominican Republic and, like many Angels stars in the past decade or so, speaks Spanish as his first language.

"The classic faces of the Angels were Gene Autry and then Wally Joyner, this clean-cut kid who everyone liked," Arellano said. "Now, of course, we have Pujols and, before that Vlad [Guerrero]. It's a completely different face of what constitutes the Angels."

Occasionally, Moreno will stroll through the Angels' clubhouse in Arizona during spring training and chat with players in Spanish. He makes no effort to obscure his roots. He just doesn't need to tell the world about them.

Mark Saxon cover the Angels for ESPNLA.com.