Outside, a red carpet stretched into the happiest restaurant on Earth, filled with giggling little girls and twinkling television trinkets...
LOS ANGELES — Outside, a red carpet stretched into the happiest restaurant on Earth, filled with giggling little girls and twinkling television trinkets and jolly Josh Hamilton squeezing his giant frame into a cheery red Angels jersey.
All that was needed was a holiday toast, a very particular toast, one that many were contemplating but none were bold enough to make.
Standing in the back, team owner Arte Moreno generously complied.
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“The Dodgers, Merry Christmas, I personally can hardly wait to play them,” he said.
And so in a Disney eatery on a bright morning in December, the Angels delightfully did what they always seem to do this time of year. They gave their fans the gift of hope, they gave Dodgers fans the lumpy coals of annoyance, and they filled the Southern California sports landscape with the blessing of buzz.
“I’m excited to see Arte getting after it,” Hamilton said with a grin, and aren’t we all?
The news conference welcoming the Angels’ newest heist — former Texas Rangers slugger and outfielder Hamilton, five years, $125 million — was filled with every bit of the boldness such a move requires.
There was Hamilton, sitting on a stage, elaborate tattoos peeking out from below the cuff of his rolled-up dress shirt, smiling and drawling through painfully honest answers about his painfully obvious past.
“Obviously, I have a past history of making mistakes, drug and alcohol and all that,” he said. “I’m so happy to see and hear an organization say, ‘We’re so excited and happy we got you, no matter what the risk is.’ “
There was Moreno, standing in a small side room, talking about making a five-year investment based on a single meal.
“We went to Dallas and had lunch with him, we talked for four hours about everything,” Moreno said. “We looked him in the eyes … we’re in love with the player, we like the person, and we want an opportunity to go out there and try to win.”
Then there was the giant garland-draped elephant in the room, a Dodgers team whose winter spending spree headlines had just been grabbed by an Angels talent of Matt Kemp proportions, with a story of struggle and redemption that is far more Hollywood. The Dodgers were a great narrative, now suddenly the Angels are equally as compelling, and you thought last year’s freeway fusses were good ones?
“Think about how much fun it’s going to be,” Moreno said. “Dodger fans and Angel fans get to argue about whose team is better, who’s stronger, who’s weaker … do you know how much fun it’s going to be”
Of course, in true Los Angeles tradition, last summer both starry lineups fell from the sky, neither team made the playoffs, so nothing is guaranteed, particularly on an Angels team that had this same sort of celebration last year when it signed Albert Pujols.
Moreno was clearly angered by recent failures, and Hamilton is clearly a response to that anger. Hamilton is a reaction to three consecutive years without a playoff appearance, a statement that nine seasons of ownership without a World Series appearance is enough.
“How many times do you go out there, you have a really good team, and it just doesn’t work?” Moreno said. “How many games have we sat there and said, ‘Really?’ Do you know how many games we gave away last year?”
Moreno admitted Hamilton is a risk. He also admitted, as an owner who thinks like a fan, he felt he had no choice.
“We have every statistical analysis but the reality is, at the end of the day, people want hope,” Moreno said. “I look at this positively and I said, ‘I hope.’ “
He hopes Hamilton, 31, does not relapse into the drug and alcohol issues that derailed the first five years of his career, and then haunted him again twice in the last four seasons. He hopes Hamilton can be closer to the player who had 18 home runs and drove in 41 runs in the first 31 games last season — baseball’s best overall start in 80 years — than the guy who crumbled in the Rangers’ final two losses.
You know what is so interesting about all this?
Hamilton admits he can only hope the same thing. He is honest enough to acknowledge that every day is a challenge that even a most-valuable-player award and two World Series appearances cannot diminish. He is, after all, the first player in Angels history whose welcoming news conference included the introduction of an accountability partner, a former strength coach named Shayne Kelley who will accompany him everywhere on the road in hopes of providing the structure that will keep him from further relapses.
“I need structure,” Hamilton admitted. “My support system is with me always.”
I asked him if he understood the increased temptations of playing in Southern California. He said he knew all about them from reading the Los Angeles Times. He said he was kidding. But then he got serious.
“If you want to get in trouble, it don’t matter where you’re at,” he said. “If you make the choice to do something bad or wrong, you can do it, period. I try not to make choices to do bad stuff, no matter where I’m at.”
Hamilton’s honesty and vulnerability make you want to cheer for him. The same goes for Moreno’s continued commitment to a championship, no matter the gamble.
“We’ve had some really good teams, and whether it’s chemistry, the stars, the planets, everything wasn’t aligned, we didn’t get there,” Moreno said. “It’s just great having an opportunity to chase it down.”
I’ve never seen them chase like they’ve chased the last two years, emptying their wallets twice for two of the game’s greatest hitters, the owner then offering holiday greetings to rival fans while acknowledging he can’t wait to battle them.
“It’s gonna be a good ride,” Hamilton said, strapping in tight, holding on for dear life.