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At 6 a.m. last Thursday, Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto dialed the operator at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas and asked for a wake-up call. "A wake-up call?" the perplexed operator asked. "Yes," Dipoto responded, "8 a.m."
In only his 41st day on the job, Dipoto had just worked deep into the night to give away $331.5 million in 2½ hours—$148 million more than owner Arte Moreno paid for the franchise eight years ago—to free agents Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. Dipoto closed the deal that added Pujols to the Angels' lineup at 3 a.m. Wilson became a member of the rotation at 5:30.
The swiftness and size of the spending was a wake-up call to the entire industry. Three weeks after the heralding of a new collective bargaining agreement designed to enhance competitive balance, the Angels proved literally overnight that nothing separates clubs like boatloads of television money.
Just 12 months earlier Moreno lost out to the deep-pocketed Red Sox in the bidding for 29-year-old outfielder Carl Crawford (seven years, $142 million) and bemoaned, "Seven years on a player is a huge risk financially." Moreno then gave a 10-year contract to Pujols that will pay the first baseman $254 million through age 42. Wilson, who won 16 games for Texas this year and had the AL's seventh-best ERA (2.94), received a five-year deal worth $77.5 million.
What changed was the upheaval and inflation that hit the Los Angeles television-rights market. Last spring Moreno reopened his $50 million-per-year local broadcast deal with Fox, and he leveraged the hot demand for live-sports content as well as the network's anxiety about having lost the Lakers and the possibility of losing the Dodgers to Time Warner Cable. Moreno tripled his annual take from Fox (an average of $150 million for 20 years) just as Pujols hit the market. The Angels' $141 million payroll from last season is expected to swell to near the $178 million luxury-tax threshold in 2012.
The TV jackpot instantly turned the Angels into a superpower, not unlike how the Rangers, their AL West rival, went from bankruptcy to extravagance within a year with an $80 million per year broadcast deal that begins in 2015 and included upfront money. Meanwhile, the Cardinals, playing in a small market without such TV riches, were priced out of Pujols, offering the slugger $210 million for nine years to remain the heir to Stan Musial in the line of career Cardinals royalty. The comparison, except for the mythology, falls apart. Musial never had the option to become a free agent or the available riches of regional sports networks. He played so long ago that he took part in more day games than night games and played in only 10 road cities, including just 114 games west of St. Louis.
Now top players are prized for entertainment value as much as playing value, as ratings boosters as much as attendance boosters, and Pujols gives the Angels a panache they sorely lacked. The team was the worst road draw in baseball last season; it ranked next to last in home TV ratings and had no player rank among the top five at any position in All-Star voting. The Angel with the most votes, second baseman Howie Kendrick, ranked 55th overall among AL players.
Los Angeles vice president of communications Tim Mead, who has worked for the franchise since 1980, called the signing and introduction of Pujols—the club invited fans to a gala news conference last Saturday—as "the third- and fourth-most-significant moments in franchise history, behind only the inauguration of the team and the 2002 world championship."
The Angels immediately fielded requests for Pujols from Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien, sold 1,000 season-ticket packages and expected games to be rescheduled to allow the maximum allowable appearances on ESPN and Fox telecasts. After missing the playoffs for a second straight year, the Angels are suddenly a powerhouse with Pujols, Wilson, a deep rotation and the promise of outfielder Mike Trout, one of the top young players in baseball. While Pujols has posted declining numbers for three straight years in batting average, slugging and OPS, Dipoto said, "I don't necessarily see it as a clear decline. And if we want to call it a decline going from superhuman to just great, I don't think we've seen the last great days of Albert Pujols."