BILL PLASCHKE

Angels paint the town red with Josh Hamilton

Arte Moreno steals the thunder back from the Dodgers with the signing of the top available free-agent hitter. It's a risk, with a possible big reward.

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Josh Hamilton? Are you kidding me?

Nobody makes a surprise splash like the Angels, but this was a flying cannonball into the middle of a Southern California pool that had been awash in Dodger blue.

Nobody breaks down the door in the middle of the night like the Angels, but this was a bullhorn-toting, helicopter-descending invasion into the consciousness of a local baseball population that has been resting peacefully atop those Magic millions.

Josh Hamilton? Are you serious?

With one huge swing-from-the-heels signing Thursday, the Los Angeles Angels of Nowhere are back, back, back, back. Hamilton may be fragile, his past may be checkered, the Angels may be giving him far too much time and money with a five-year, $125-million contract, but he still represents the kind of flashy billboard that owner Arte Moreno understands best.

The Dodgers can spend millions, but the Angels will spend flashier millions. The Dodgers can play hardball, but the Angels are going to play long ball. The Dodgers can steal Zack, but the Angels are going to respond with Whack! And, oh yeah, the rival Texas Rangers can stick it in Nolan Ryan's cackle.

Josh Hamilton? Can you imagine?

Hamilton, 31, baseball's top free-agent hitter, with 43 homers and 128 RBIs for the Rangers last year, will bat fourth in an Angels lineup whose first three hitters include Mike Trout and Albert Pujols. Among the three of them, they have either won or finished second in league MVP voting in four of the last five years. If it's not quite a Murderers' Row, it's certainly a Commuter's Dream, and around here on a Wednesday night in the middle of summer, is anything more important?

Hamilton will be a left-handed-hitting anchor in a lineup that severely tilts right. He will be a left fielder on a crowded outfield roster that could allow the team to trade one of those guys for more pitching. In a winter when the Dodgers signed Zack Greinke, wouldn't it be something if the Angels traded for the New York Mets' R.A. Dickey?

Face it, some would say this move is about the Rangers, but it's far more about the Dodgers. The town that Moreno wants to dominate isn't Arlington, but right here, his own town, a place that the Angels often inhabit in name only. Despite adding the "Los Angeles" to their moniker several years ago, the Angels have had difficulty gaining traction among fans who still have difficulty overcoming geography and tradition, and this winter the distance grew.

Since the end of the most disappointing season of the Moreno era, the Angels have been less visible than ever, unwilling or unable to sign the likes of Greinke and Torii Hunter, receding into the shadow of a Dodgers organization that has pretty much signed or traded for, like, everyone. The good news was that the Angels actually held a media luncheon this week to introduce their off-season acquisitions. The bad news was that the headliner was Joe Blanton.

Oh, but everyone is paying attention now. In the same way the Angels once grabbed us with their signing of Vladimir Guerrero, with the same force that they once rocked us with Pujols, they have burst through the door with Hamilton.

Is he a risk? Baseball has no bigger risk. Hamilton is constantly battling the demons of his drug-afflicted past while fighting to maintain a consistent lifestyle that seemingly spins out of control at the slightest twinge.

He has been healthy enough to record at least 500 at-bats in only three of his six seasons. During those seasons, he has never hit fewer than 30 homers or accumulated fewer than 100 RBIs, and led the Rangers to two World Series appearances in the last three years, but it can still be hard to keep him on the field.

Even when he plays, there are issues. In the middle of last season, he suddenly gave up smokeless tobacco and it sent him into a tailspin, as he hit only eight homers with 27 RBIs in June and July. To compensate for the loss of tobacco, he began drinking so much caffeine, it affected his eyesight and caused him to miss five games in September. He ended the year by dropping a fly ball that led to a loss to Oakland in the division-deciding game, and then went hitless in the one-game wild-card playoff loss to the Baltimore Orioles.

Hamilton was given much blame for the Rangers' losing a five-game division lead with nine games remaining, and later Rangers CEO Ryan had to publicly rebut reports that Hamilton had quit.

Yeah, life with the guy can get pretty messy. Absolutely, he needs to play in a place where his sobriety can be monitored and nurtured, a place where he can avoid the usual baseball pressures and just swing the kind of bat that once hit four home runs in one game in Baltimore and 28 home runs in one round of the home run derby at Yankee Stadium.

Anaheim is exactly that place, and perhaps now is exactly that time.

Hamilton will join an Angels culture in which the fans are mostly patient and encouraging, Angel Stadium being the sweet sort of a spot where a baseball game feels like a picnic. Hamilton will also join an Angels team not as their superstar, but as probably the fourth-most-hyped player behind Trout, Pujols and pitcher Jered Weaver. After the initial spotlight fades, he can flex those tattooed biceps in the coolness of the shadows, in the company of friends, far from the Texas heat and national glare.

It could work. Cheers to Moreno for trying to make it work. If you don't realize the Angels owner is about more than cheap beer, you're drinking too much of it.

There will be a big baseball news conference in Southern California in the next few days and — surprise, surprise — Magic Johnson will not be there. But, thanks to this latest Angels swoop, the potential for magic will be everywhere.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke
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