April 16, 2024

When Japanese superstar Shohei Ohtani joined the Angels in 2018, my cousins and I made a bet. How long until he leaves Orange County to join the Los Angeles Dodgers?

We knew it wasn’t a matter of if, but when.

Not just because the Blue Crew is one of baseball’s marquee franchises, while the Halos are as respected as a soul patch. Or because Angels owner Arte Moreno makes NFT investors seem as smart with their money as, well, the Dodgers, who just signed Ohtani to the richest contract ever in professional sports, at $700 million for 10 years.

Nah, we knew Ohtani was fated to leave because he’s a young, talented person — and folks like him usually get the hell out of O.C. the moment they can.

We saw the best minds of my generation flee for Austin, Texas, Chicago, New York, the Inland Empire, but especially L.A. — the place our elders taught us to fear as full of crime and liberals. Our friends and relatives left to find opportunities that were impossible in staid, conservative, expensive Orange County. They rarely looked back. When their new neighbors asked where they were from, most would demur and say “Southern California” or “near Los Angeles.”

City, civic and county leaders didn’t care about this exodus, since O.C. was never meant to be cool. We were the spot where people moved after they made it. Orange County was aspirational, and if you couldn’t afford to hack it here, good riddance and don’t forget to take along other underachievers like you.

This thinking went on, unchecked, for decades. But it’s finally dawning on the lords of O.C. that losing our young to Los Angeles and elsewhere portends doom.

Fans line up to enter Angel Stadium in 2021.

Fans line up to enter Angel Stadium in 2021.

(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

Orange County has shrunk in population three out of the last four years — a once-unthinkable development in a region that has always bragged about its growth. O.C’s median age has gone from 33.3 years in the 2000 census to 39.5 years in 2022, a rate of aging that has outpaced the nation. About 17,000 people between the ages of 20 and 35 left in 2016 and 2017 alone, according to the Orange County Business Council’s most recent Workforce Housing Scorecard, which called the youthful exodus a “troubling trend” and a “drain on the county’s future workforce.”

Like Orange County, the Angels have historically preferred established and over-the-hill players and barely blinked when homegrown prospects left for better opportunities. The team rarely invests in its farm system, the way Orange County cities have never really cared about creating affordable housing, good-paying jobs or other necessities that would help to keep young people here. Ohtani, like so many of the smart people who have left O.C. in my lifetime, finally got fed up with his situation — and could you blame him?

Even Moreno couldn’t resist the siren call of L.A. — he renamed his team the Los Angeles Angels shortly after buying it 20 years ago.

This is an apples-to-oranges comparison, of course — or rather, Dodgers-to-Angels. The 29-year-old Ohtani, unlike most millennials, is a once-in-an-epoch phenom with enough money to buy a series of homes from Angel Stadium to Dodger Stadium. But his departure means the Angels are now staring at years of irrelevancy if Moreno continues his youth-averse ways.

That’s where Orange County finds itself today.

It’s sad to say this about a place where I was born and raised and plan to live my entire life, because heaven knows, people outside of the power structure have tried to stop this brain drain. From the late 1990s through the 2010s, I followed and eventually wrote about those who were trying to make O.C. a cool place, one we could proudly proclaim to be as hip as L.A. Homegrown stars shined in clubs, restaurants, galleries, fashion and other culture scenes. Cities like Costa Mesa, Anaheim and Santa Ana became creative hubs that — gasp — even Angelenos would visit.

No one exemplified this creativity more than Gwen Stefani, Orange County’s most famous musician and someone whom the Board of Supervisors included this month as an inaugural member of the Orange County Hall of Fame. She and her band, No Doubt, became global stars with their breakout album “Tragic Kingdom,” a title that was a play on Disneyland’s nickname and meant to reflect how people of Stefani’s generation hated boring, old Orange County and were committed to do something about it.

Stefani has always proudly repped Orange County, caring enough to be the headliner when Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre closed down in 2016 and when Anaheim’s Honda Center celebrated its 30th anniversary in September. But Ms. O.C. hasn’t lived down here for decades. After spending a few years in Oklahoma with her husband, country superstar Blake Shelton, she’s back in Los Angeles.

Gwen Stefani sits next to her Hollywood Walk of Fame star and waves, wearing a silvery dress, boots and cutouts of stars.

Gwen Stefani attends a ceremony honoring her with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Oct. 19 in Los Angeles.

(Chris Pizzello/Associated Press)

The scenes that birthed Stefani and others fizzled out, as people aged out and fled their old stamping grounds to the suburban limbo of south Orange County, or to places like Nashville. Some are still fighting the good fight — but more than ever, they look to L.A. for their creative and professional salvation.

Including me.

When I joined The Times five years ago this month, I had spent my career almost exclusively covering Orange County. I wanted to show the rest of the world that my homeland was worthy of respect and to highlight those battling against the forces that kept driving out too many talented people.

I planned to continue focusing on O.C. in my new job. Once I began to cover Los Angeles, that changed. I quickly discovered an excitement and energy to L.A. that doesn’t exist in Orange County and can’t be replicated elsewhere, that intoxicates you and makes you wonder what took you so long to get it.

Ohtani will soon experience that for himself. That’s why I don’t blame him for leaving the Halos, as cool as it would have been to see him in Orange County for the rest of his career. He and too many others before him saw no future down here, especially once they realized there are far more welcoming places out there.

To paraphrase a famous World War I song, how ya gonna keep us down in Anaheim after we’ve seen the City of Angels?

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