Feb 09, 2023, 06:29AM

Baltimore’s Mystery Orioles

GM Mike Elias hamstrung by Angelos family’s reluctance to spend money on free agents.

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I’m not a fan of the Orioles—a lifelong allegiance to the Boston Red Sox precludes that—but as a resident of Baltimore it’s hard to imagine a worse sports scenario than the franchise leaving the city. Baltimore’s in the news frequently, not only for its unrelenting violent crime—at night, stepping outside the house I hear gunshots every other day, and then police car sirens—but also decreasing population, a waterfront that was once a tourist destination but now abandoned, with no resolution on the horizon, and a city government that’s better known for its corruption than serving citizens. If the current owners of the Orioles, the warring Angelos family, decide to move the team—possibly to Nashville, whose hunger for an MLB team is palpable—the gloom in the city, the blow to civic pride would sting on a daily basis, not only for the retail businesses around the club’s still-marvelous Camden Yards, and the hotels and restaurants, but even for people who don’t regularly follow sports. In my opinion, a city without a baseball team is second-rate. (The Angelos family didn’t trigger a five-year stopgap renewal for the lease on Camden Yards—the owners, and new Gov. Wes Moore promised to “build” toward a “longer agreement” before Dec. 31st, offering vague plans for a waterfront “playland,” although that was met with a raised eyebrow.)

A move to another city or sale of the Orioles is far from certain, but it’s a fair question considering the dysfunctional Angelos clan.

There are a lot of bad owners in baseball (and other sports), billionaires who bleed their cities for public financing of stadiums, feed at the trough of revenue sharing and TV deals, who have no intention of fielding a competitive team—the Pittsburgh Pirates, Miami Marlins, Kansas City Royals, Cincinnati Reds and Oakland A’s, for example—and now you’d have to put the Orioles in that category, who enter this season with the second-lowest payroll. It wasn’t always so: the now-incapacitated Peter Angelos (93) once spent a lot of money on free agents and the team had some good years in the 1990s, along with a smattering of winning clubs this century. I’ve never liked Peter Angelos, whose law firm (now in conservatorship) inundates TV with sleazy ambulance-chaser ads, and his fealty to the Democratic Party rubs me the wrong way—although the latter isn’t uncommon. The franchise is also enmeshed in nasty litigation (naturally) with the Washington Nationals over their supposed shared ownership of the TV station MASN; the stalled outcome in that case has undoubtedly affected the sale of the Nats, who own a minority share of MASN, but are owed $105 million from the Orioles, by decree of a New York arbitrator in 2019.

It's frustrating for enthusiastic Orioles fans, some of whom remember the team’s glory days, running from 1966-1983, with stars like pitchers Jim Palmer, Pat Dobson, Mike Cuellar, Dave McNally, Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell, Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken, Jr., Frank Robinson, Mark Belanger, Paul Blair, Bobby Grich, Ken Singleton and so many others. Last season was a highly unexpected turnaround for the O’s, who, on the backs of young players mostly, compiled an 83-79 record and until the final weeks of September had a chance of making the expanded playoffs. GM Mike Elias (a 40-year-old import from the superb Houston Astros organization in 2018) is playing the company man, insisting the Orioles will make a run at the playoffs this year, but he has to be frustrated by ownership’s turmoil, which apparently has given him almost nothing to spend on free agents. The Orioles, despite Elias’ pledge in September, were very quiet in the offseason, adding pitchers Kyle Gibson, Cole Irvin and Michal Givens, hardly a splash.

The team has a core of great or could-be-great players, almost all young, like catcher Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson, Dean Kremer, Ryan Mountcastle, Cedric Mullins, Jorge Mateo, Anthony Santander, as well as top prospects like Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall. Three or four veterans—say Michael Wacha (still unsigned), Andrew Benintendi (now with the White Sox), Zack Greinke (who just returned to the Royals), a return of fan favorite Trey Mancini (Cubs) Justin Turner (Red Sox)—would’ve been valuable mentors to under-25s and contribute in their own right.

On Monday, a terse four-page court document obtained by local news organizations, including The Baltimore Sun said that all lawsuits between Georgia (Peter’s 81-year-old wife) and 55-year-old John Angelos (Orioles chairman and CEO, who has a home in Nashville) and Louis Angelos (53)—very nasty stuff, including charges by Louis that his mother and brother were “plotting” against him in the family’s financial matters, which was met by Georgia’s suit that Louis was messing around with Peter’s law firm, committing “financial elder abuse”—were dropped. The law firm remains in conservatorship; whether it’s sold or “wound down” is anybody’s guess, given the Byzantine dealings of the family.

Jim Palmer, the Hall of Fame pitcher and excellent “color” broadcaster for Orioles TV games (one of the best in the business), said, “It’s good that it’s over.” Less enthusiastic was former state legislator John Pica, now an attorney at the Angelos firm, who commented: “Now the Orioles can move forward without distractions, so it’s probably good for the team. I think it’s great news. I hope all parties were treated favorably.”

My own speculation is that Georgia, John and Louis, realizing the distraction of their litigation (and, not incidentally, Judge Keith Truffer’s order that both sides produce reams of documents, including the MASN suit, the retention of Goldman Sachs to explore selling at least partial interests in the team, and Louis’ involvement in his father’s law firm), came to some agreement, and divvied out slices of the family financial pie among themselves. The Orioles, on the market—if they clear up the MASN messiness—could fetch perhaps $1.5 billion, and you’d think the principals would want a lucrative exit. There’s been talk for some years of Cal Ripken, Jr. taking on the “frontman” role of a new ownership group, which would delight Orioles fans. But I wonder where the local money would come from; there are billionaires in the Baltimore metro area, but are any interested in owning the team? That’s why I think a move to Nashville—despite John’s promise last June that as long as Fort McHenry stands in Baltimore so will the Orioles—isn’t far-fetched.

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER1955


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