Welcome to Toriitown

ANAHEIM - It was the bottom of the first when All-Star outfielder Torii Hunter first stepped inside the batter's box.Underneath a litany of bright lights, fans cheered as the instantly recognizable 90s hit "Get Ready for This" began pulsing throughout Angels Stadium last Friday night. "Alright guys, there he is...signs up and try to keep them even," said Claude Bilodeau, turning back to check the stadium's 42-by-67 foot JumboTron. "Come on, Torii," exclaimed Bilodeau after quickly jiggling his Angels baseball cap and clapping his hands. After two balls and two strikes, Hunter struck out swinging. But Bilodeau's confidence remained unscathed, nonetheless. "Torii is a great guy. He's got one more year left after this season and we're here to support him," Bilodeau said. "He's the heart and soul of the team." Hoping to both celebrate Hunter and rally Angels fans, Bilodeau, 48, during at least one game in every homestand this season, enlists a group of dedicated fans to help him hold up nine 2 1/2-by-4 foot double-walled, white boards, which transform right field into "Toriitown." "It started with 'Matsuiland' last season," said Bilodeau, a resident of Downey since 1987. "The Dodgers had 'Mannywood' going for Manny Ramirez so one day my family said, 'we should do Matsuiland like Disneyland.'" Bilodeau began buying about a dozen adjacent tickets in the right-field pavilion, inviting Angels fans to hold up the sign tribute to former designated hitter and outfielder Hideki Matsui. However, when Matsui left the team to join the Oakland A's, Bilodeau made the decision to highlight a new Angels player. "We said, 'let's carry it on with Toriitown like Toontown,'" recalled Bilodeau who then presented Matsui fans in Oakland with a brand new "Matsuiland" sign redone in green and yellow. "We picked Torii because we wanted to honor his great career, his playing ability. He's a friendly guy, a terrific ball player with a feel-good story." Bilodeau, public works superintendent for the city of Huntington Park, said it was that inspiring story, which made the nine-time Gold Glove winner stand out among the other players. "Torii is what's good about baseball," he said. "He had a tough upbringing, but Torii ended up signing a contract right out of high school. Now he's helping at-risk youth who were in his position, they're very important to him." By the third inning, Toriitown, located in Section 237, Row N, mostly comprised of Downey residents, was back on its feet welcoming Hunter to his position in right field. With a simple hand gesture, Hunter acknowledged the sign, sporting a humble grin. According to Bilodeau, Hunter couldn't be more gracious about all the extra attention he's been receiving lately. "I met him at spring training and he was very appreciative," said Bilodeau who asked Hunter to sign the first 'O' in Toriitown. "Torii said, 'T-T - I love that!'" Bilodeau acknowledged that buying Angels tickets every couple of weeks can be rather taxing, but he maintained that searching for discounts through websites such as Craigslist and StubHub has been beneficial. "On StubHub, you can find tickets for five, four and three dollars a piece so you end up paying only about 30 or 40 bucks for a row of seats," he said. "But the Angels give us discounts too…they've given us some tickets before. It creates a very positive experience so they want to keep this going." Utilizing Facebook, e-mail, and other social media, Bilodeau invites both friends and strangers alike to come support the team. "The message I want to bring is that winning or losing, we're going to support Torii Hunter and the Angels," he said. "I love baseball - it's all about family, friends, experiences. I want to bring that positive atmosphere to the stadium." Toriitown, which followed Hunter to an April 26 charity event in Garden Grove, is already starting to catch on among fans, inspiring other Torii signs that are starting to appear in the right-field pavilion. Bilodeau, who manages the group's Facebook page, said he hopes to continue Toriitown into next season when Hunter's contract is scheduled to end. However, until then, Bilodeau plans to take the homage on the road. "Toriitown's taking a road trip," he said with a laugh. "We're going to go up to Oakland next month and support the Angels. We want to let Torii know that we're not jumping off the bandwagon. We've got his back."

********** Published: June 16, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 9

FeaturesEric Pierce