There’s a saying that has become increasingly more prevalent in our society as dysfunction takes root in the American family: “You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.” In the last eight—going on nine years—that phrase may never be more true in baseball than with the Baltimore Orioles, as the club has strung together as many consecutive eight losing seasons and attendance has dipped during the swoon.
At the heart of this slide is owner Peter Angelos.
The disgrace that Angelos has bestowed upon a once great organization is more than just this author’s opinion. Look across the vast array of forums and blogs, where the most dedicated of Orioles fans talk of their beloved club daily, and the venom is palpable. Here are a selection of comments from The Orioles Hangout and the Orioles forum on Ballpark Guys:
“We hear every year how the Orioles are ‘waiting for the market to set itself.’ They let other teams decide for them how much a player is worth, and, only then, do they decide if they can afford to get involved.” “The bigger picture tells me that Angelos’ #1 mission is to increase the overall value of the franchise as much as possible. Given his age, I’m sure the thoughts of his mortality and ensuring the long term financial security of his family is his primary motive in how he runs the club.” “My biggest issue with Angelos is his apparent lack of loyalty to his people, both players and managers. Mussina and Palmeiro (the first time) are two examples of superstars in their prime that were let go for draft picks.” “In the past two to three years, the front office could have signed major talent (i.e.- Vlad Guerrero, Delgado among others) or traded for the help the team needed (Mulder, Hudson, etc.). The main reason behind all of this is because of Angelos. He does not want to improve the team. All he wants to do is make money and stir up as much trouble with MLB and Bud Selig as he can. He brings in fan favorites, yes, but not necessarily good players. Because why? Because he wants to fill seats and generate as much money possible. He should take some of the money and follow through on his promises of making the team a contender for the AL East. If not, fans will stop coming and he will lose money rather than generate the revenue. ANGELOS, THIS IS ONE OF THE MOST PROFITABLE TEAMS IN THE ENTIRE MLB, WHY NOT MAKE IT ONE OF THE MORE SUCCESSFUL AND COMPETITIVE ONES AS WELL?” “The O’s decline from ’98 to the present essentially coincides with the shutting off the cash spigot for quality free agents right after Angelos was head faked into damaged -goods Albert Belle. From that point forward he’s methodically trimmed the payroll to a fraction of what it was when the O’s were competitive while simultaneously raising ticket prices.”
The upshot of all this is that it wasn’t just a well intended bungling of a legitimate plan but an engineered process of increasing the bottom line at the expense on-the-field product. Angelos has put his self interest at the forefront and told the paying customer to take what they get and like it.”
And he wonders why his credibility is virtually non-existent.”
Pick up papers from Baltimore to Orlando to New York and there has been a steady stream of columns rife with criticism of Lord Peter. Here’s what George Diaz of the Orlando Sentinel said recently in his column, which was titled, Angelos’ ineptitude ruining O’s for Tejada, fans:
Miguel Tejada is not a happy man these days, and rightfully so.
His company—the Baltimore Orioles—have become a pathetic joke under the manipulative, botched reign of owner Peter Angelos.
Seemingly obsessed with power and apparently not much baseball sense, Angelos has single-handedly ruined a franchise that was once the epitome of class in Major League Baseball.
Before Angelos trampled on the Orioles legacy, the Orioles strung together 18 consecutive winning seasons.
I could fill the page here with similar observations, but today, I’ll add to the mix as to why Angelos has to go …
Poor Management Decisions
The warnings should have been there in 1997. Four years after Angelos purchased the club, Davey Johnson resigns on November 5, just hours before he’s named AL Manager of the year. Why? Angelos refuses to give Johnson a vote of confidence after saying he’d be back for the 1998 season.
At one point, there were eight pitching coaches in eight years. The constant? Angelos. How about managers? Seven in 12 years. OK, general managers? Six in 12 years. It’s like Angelos is rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic. When there’s that much turnover and the results continue to be bad, at some point you have to look at yourself in the mirror, Peter.
Last season was certainly a cruel joke for the club and its fans. I mentioned to a member of the Orioles staff recently that last year must have been trying. “It was great for 63 days,” was the reply, as if to minimize the damage on the field, as well as off. Between Rafael Palmeiro’s now infamous finger wag and positive steroid test, to Rafael’s attempt to drag Miguel Tejada into the mix, to Sidney Ponson’s drunken stupidity, to the slide back to earth in the AL East standings, it took an already bitter pill and made it all the more difficult to swallow.
While you certainly can’t lay Palmeiro’s actions at Angelos’ feet, the fact that up until the last second a celebration for his 3,000 hits/500 home runs milestone was being considered showed either A) Marketing could actually try and milk some more butts in the seats with a special celebration and just wanted to see how bad the damage was, or; B) A fumbling and stumbling method of dealing with damage control.
In the case of Ponson, there’s no good excuse.
It wasn’t enough that on Christmas Day in 2004 he punched a judge in Aruba, spending 11 days in jail for the action. That should have been grounds for dismissal then. Instead, the player was sent to anger management counseling. Too bad the alcohol situation wasn’t addressed. On January 21, he was pulled over for speeding and driving under the influence in Florida. Still nothing. The anger management seemed to work wonders, as a couple months later he wound up dinging his right hand up after getting into a shoving match in a Ft. Lauderdale, FL, restaurant. The word out of the B&O? Silence. Nothing. Zero. It took a final drunk driving charge in August of last year for the front office to finally release Ponson.
Look up “dysfunctional” in the dictionary and there’s the Black and Orange leadership staring you back in the face.
Sure, one of the greatest players to play in Orioles uniform is now working across the street managing the Nationals. Sure, Cal Ripken, Jr. was mentioned repeatedly as a possible ownership candidate for the same. Sure, Brooks Robinson won’t have anything to do with the club. Those are just the icing. It’s possible that Typhoid Mary could wind up as the next mascot for the club.
Meddling in Player Personnel Decisions
Whether it was Roland Hemond, Pat Gillick, Frank Wren, Syd Thrift, Jim Beattie, or Mike Flanagan, the glue that has screwed up deals in Baltimore has been Angelos.
In 1998, Frank Wren signs Xavier Hernandez to a two-year contract worth $2.5 million. After the deal is signed, Hernandez’s physical reveals a partly torn rotator cuff. Angelos voids the contract, Hernandez files a grievance, and a negotiated settlement of $1.75 million is arrived at.
In 2000, Angelos kills a four-year $29 million contract with Aaron Sele because he questions Sele’s physical condition. Sele then goes to Seattle, where he goes 17-10.
And then there was Albert Belle’s five-year $65 million contract, which hamstrung the club until just two years ago. In that case, Belle’s hip went south two years into the deal, and the Orioles were left holding the bag.
Add Scott Erickson’s five-year $32 million deal to Belle’s deal, and it left the Orioles constrained in the payroll department. Angelos learned his lesson, right? Well, not really …
What’s particularly galling is the continued sense that those at the B&O Warehouse think the fans buy into “The Plan.” The Orioles continue to roll out a busted and broken parade of players past their prime, and have neglected the farm system to the point where trying to see an upside this season is an exercise in futility. In the recent past, Palmerio and Sammy Sosa are but two examples of players past their prime. Jeromy Burnitz would have been another, if not for Angelos’ use of language within contracts that gives the Orioles an easy out to try and renegotiate deals based on a player’s physical, he’d be in the Orange and Black, as well. As Frank Wren said to Murray Chass in the New York Times (“What’s the Deal? Angelos Is Orioles’ Dr. No”), “That’s how Peter plays general manager. He uses medical reasons to kill or change a deal if he doesn’t like it.”
Eight years … eight long years, with it looking more like nine—maybe a decade. It’s maddening.
Angelos and Greed
It’s not like Angelos and the Orioles are making calls from the Poor Farm. It’s not like the Orioles are playing in Dolphin Stadium where ballpark revenues are constrained, and the fan experience is lacking. He has a club playing in the gold-standard of ballparks, in Camden Yards. The ballpark itself draws so many fans, it practically prints money. If you glance at the graph in the lower left, one can see that the franchise value for the club has more than doubled since Angelos has owned the club, and it should continue to climb.
Yet, Angelos has continued to milk the fans while providing little in the way of budget for baseball operations to conduct competitive business in the ultra-aggressive AL East.
As an example, in 2004 Angelos sent a memo through the Orioles organization asking each department to look at ways to cut costs. The memo, dated April 29, 2004, read in part, “Pursuant to meetings last week with Mr. Angelos regarding current forecasts of the club’s financial statements, Mr. Angelos would like each of you to immediately review all of your respective cost center budgets.” That same year, the club increased marketing by $1 million, and yet, player payroll was at $52 million—in the bottom half of the league. At the same time, Angelos raised ticket prices anywhere from 9%-22% in a year when attendance was up by an average of 5,124 fans a game.
Recentlly, Angelos backed MLB into a corner over the relocation of the Expos to DC, brokered a deal in which the Orioles will be the controlling interest of the newly created MASN regional sports network, and got MLB to set a potentially damaging precedent by setting the value of the franchise—no matter what—at a $360 million sale price. The franchise value will certainly be going up considerably due to this deal, and Angelos has zero incentive to invest any of the monies in a winning club. Why should he? He’s got the sale price locked in. In the meantime, the Red Sox and Yankees continue to put their money where their mouths are, and now that all the clubs are in financially better shape, the Blue Jays and Devil Rays are making deals and should be making noise in the division. In the mean time, another off season in Baltimore is another season of atrophy—a reactionary tale of being too late or offering up deals that aren’t up to snuff this off season, when the free agency pool was shallow, and with that, contacts with steeper price tags.
Angelos and his Poor Relationship with his Fellow Owners
It doesn’t have to be a lovefest, but for the most part, you need to at least be able to deal with your fellow ownership brethren on an amicable basis. Angelos hasn’t exactly been a favorite among the owners since becoming the controlling interest in the franchise in 1993. In the New York Times of Aug. 7, 1994 (“Orioles Owner: Man With A Plan”), just before the strike was to commence, Mike Mussina said, “The owners are making tons of money.” Angelos’ response? “I say to our side, if this young man [Mussina] with his academic background and high level of intelligence, believes that, and we’re losing a $100 million a year, we’ve dropped the ball. The key is to inform the players; let them know what the facts are financially. If baseball has a problem, let them prove it. The owners should put the books on the table.” Yes, I’m certain this made friends in the lodge.
He really ruffled feathers when he refused to use replacement players during the 1994 strike. As Claire Smith of the New York Times reported on Jan. 20, 1995 (“Orioles Say They Won’t Play Without Regulars”), Angelos would not relent on the use of replacement players during the strike, and was willing to accept fines from the American League of “up to $250,000 a game to suspension to the possible confiscation of the franchise.” There was Angelos going up against the then 27 other owners. A settlement was eventually reached without the use of replacement players, but the Angelos was an outcast then, and he certainly seems to be an outcast now after the handling of the Expos relocation.
I mentioned that he shoved MLB into a corner on the relocation of the Expos to DC. During the relocation process, Angelos rubbed salt in the wounds of those that had longed for a return of a club back to the nation’s capital. “There are no real baseball fans in DC,” Angelos has said, while pronouncing that a club in DC would cut into attendance at Camden Yards. Nothing like ripping on your implied demographic, Peter. It should be noted that Angelos claimed that attendance at Camden would drop by 20% if a team were to relocate to Washington, DC. The total drop in attendance from 2004 to 2005 for the Orioles at home? A 4.35% decrease from 2,744,018 in 2004, to 2,624,740 in 2005. Hard saying if this was due to the Nationals, the fun-filled world of Rafael Palmerio and the case of the mysterious positive steroid test, or, yet another losing season. The good fans of the Orioles will have to make that call.
To add to this, in an awkward and insensitive case of trying to promote the club as a more regional entity, the word “Baltimore” has been removed from the jersey, and more, it has been treated as a near sacrilegious word to use in association with the club.
Way to embrace Baltimore. Way to gain fans in DC.
Angelos and his Negotiating Style
Maybe the key to trying to understand this mess is to view it through the lens of where Angelos made his bread and butter. A dedicated Orioles fan and lawyer who has watched Angelos work in the courts over the years made the observation that, “Angelos’ style of negotiation is to take a good faith concession on even the tiniest point and try to turn it into a concession of essentially unconditional surrender.” If one looks at how negotiations with Ron Shapiro went over Ripken, Jr.’s contract, I can see it. If you look at the negotiations with the relocation of the Expos, I can see it. If you look at those issues, and view them in the context of contract negotiations, it’s not a far leap to see it there, as well.
In the end, the Orioles are running on ineptitude. It seems very plausible that when Angelos dances off this mortal coil, he’ll be leaving the club to family. Nepotism doesn’t bode well for the future, if that’s case.
When you look at the writing on the wall, it’s more of the same on the horizon. Sure, it’s not slash and burn as Jeffery Loria has done in Florida, and maybe that’s the solace that Orioles’ fans can latch on to. In 1993, the bidding for the Orioles turned into a heated exchange of offers between the group that Angelos was a part of, and one Jeffery Loria. We’ll just have to gloss over that World Series Championship in 2003. We’ll just have to stop looking in the rear view over the continued improvement of the other clubs in the AL East.
Bird lovers, batten down the hatches. It’s another year of Lord Peter.