This annotated week in baseball history: Jan. 4 – Jan. 10, 2000

On Jan. 10, 2000, Aaron Sele signed a two-year contract with the Seattle Mariners—but only because Orioles owner Peter Angelos nixed a four-year contract due to his concerns about arm trouble. Angelos’ moves have reduced his once-proud franchise to embarrassment.

It is not exactly a big secret that players’ careers have a peak. Most players (not all) go in something of a bell curve, starting with low value at a young age, peaking somewhere in their mid-to-late 20s and then tailing off as their career goes on.

That tailing off can be ugly—the classic example being Willie Mays falling down in the 1973 World Series—but fans of nearly every team can think of a much-loved player who simply hung on too long.

But while less known, I would argue this happens with everyone affiliated with baseball. Not just players, but also writers, general managers and field managers. (Our own Chris Jaffe described the late career of one recent manager as “aimless thrashing.”)

So if this affects everyone, it stands to reason that owners would be included. Now, some owners are simply so hands-off that there is no way to tell. Others, like George Steinbrenner, seemed to ebb and flow depending on their mental status at any point in time.

Other owners had a clear peak and have long since descended into the Willie Mays-falling-down stage of their ownership. Such is the case with Peter Angelos and the Baltimore Orioles.

Angelos made his fortune in trial law, specifically in asbestos litigation. Since then, he and his firm have represented, among others, the state of Maryland against tobacco companies, and those affected by the diet pill fen-phen.

Most would know him, however, from his position as chairman of the board and CEO of the Orioles, positions he has held since he purchased the team in 1993. Angelos’ first years with the Orioles were largely successful. He hired Pat Gillick to run the team, leading to back-to-back playoff appearances in 1996 and 1997, the second coming with 98 wins and the best record in the American League.

Moreover, to Angelos’ everlasting credit, he refused in 1995 to go along with his fellow owners’ disgraceful replacement player scheme, not budging even under threats of fines up to a quarter-million per game he refused to play or having the franchise taken away from him.

Unfortunately for the O’s and their fans, the playoff appearances in 1997 represented Angelos’ peak as an owner. Since then, the Orioles never have won more than 79 games. They have lost at least 92 games in each of the past three seasons, and six of the past eight seasons.

Since Davey Johnson left the team—more on that shortly—the O’s have had five managers.
After Gillick’s contract was not renewed after the 1998 season, the Orioles also employed a parade of general managers, including a two-headed Jim Beattie/Mike Flanagan combination, which worked about as well as you’d expect.

Although a number of moves could represent Angelos’ meddling and bumbling, perhaps the best example is Aaron Sele. The Orioles had agreed to a four-year, $29 million contract with the erstwhile Texas Ranger. Sele had won 37 games the previous two seasons, a total bested in the American League only by Pedro Martinez. He was not actually that good, but he was a solid innings eater who was only 30.

Sele’s contract was nixed by the team’s owner, however, when he (apparently deciding he was a doctor as well as attorney) examined the medical reports on Sele and concluded the pitcher was a bad injury risk.

Instead, Sele signed with the Mariners, and proceeded to go 32-15 in his two seasons in Seattle, helping the Mariners win a league-record 116 games in 2001. Before the 2002 season, Sele agreed to a three-year, $24 million contract with the Angels, thus earning approximately the same amount for the four years of 2000-2003 he would have with the Orioles.

Now it is true that Sele was injured during his tenure with the Angels, seemingly justifying Angelos’ interference. Yet even with his injury, during the four years that Sele’s Orioles’ contract would have covered, he pitched the 17th most innings in the American League, with an ERA a shade worse than average and nearly 50 victories.

Instead of Sele, Baltimore filled its rotation with a mix of the has-been (Pat Hentgen, Pat Rapp) and the never-was (Jose Mercedes, Willis Roberts).

But the Sele incident was hardly Angelos’ only interference with his team’s management. On the same day Johnson was announced as American League Manager of the Year for 1997, he resigned. Among other things, Angelos had accused Johnson of “gross misconduct,” and the resignation was widely seen as Johnson’s attempt at a compromise that would allow him to manage in 1998.

Angelos’ role in the team has taken its toll. The performance on the field, all those 90-loss seasons, has been covered but it seems to permeate the whole franchise. At one point during the tenure of Syd Thrift, another of Angelos’ ill-conceived Gillick replacements, Thrift complained that attempting to convince free agents to come to Baltimore was like offering “Confederate money.”

Things are looking up to some degree in Baltimore. Camden Yards remains one of the best parks in baseball. (Though on many nights it draws crowds well under 20,000 and O’s fans are often outnumbered by invading Red Sox and Yankee followers.) Adam Jones and Nick Markakis are two of the best young outfielders in baseball, while catcher Matt Wieters is probably the best prospect in the game.

Perhaps Markakis, Jones and Wieters can help the Orioles break out in a division that features not only the twin behemoths of New York and Boston, but also the smartly run Tampa Bay Rays. It would good to see the team return to the glory it once had. But with Angelos long past his prime and still running the team, whether that can be done remains to be seen.

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