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One Quick Fix

Feb. 21, 1994
Feb. 21, 1994

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Feb. 21, 1994

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Point After

One Quick Fix

A free-spending new owner has financed an overhaul of the Baltimore Orioles

The man looking out the store window recognized Peter Angelos, who was being photographed at Baltimore's Harbor-place on this frosty February afternoon. A wave of the hand or pump of the fist wouldn't have been sufficient acknowledgment of this local hero, the new majority owner of the Baltimore Orioles. No, the man in the window did what maniacal baseball fans in this town do—he spelled out O-R-I-O-L-E-S with his body.

This is an article from the Feb. 21, 1994 issue Original Layout

The love affair between Baltimore and the O's now runs deeper than ever, thanks to Angelos, an attorney who amassed a fortune litigating lawsuits on behalf of workers exposed to asbestos. On Oct. 4, when Angelos and his local ownership group took control of the Orioles from Eli Jacobs, a bankrupt New York financier whose creditors repossessed his desk for $18,000 and his brass toilet-paper dispenser for $77, the fiscal handcuffs were removed from the team's management for the first time in this decade. During the off-season the Orioles quickly became baseball's most aggressive operatives in the free-agent market and transformed themselves overnight into its most-improved team, one that's set to challenge the world champion Toronto Blue Jays in the American League East.

"This is the most excited I've been about spring training since I've been here," says Baltimore manager Johnny Oates, who joined the club in 1989. He should be excited. Angelos, who must have the deepest pockets of any man with a 28-inch inseam, has committed $42.85 million to sign four free agents who will be regulars in the Oriole lineup: first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, third baseman Chris Sabo, pitcher Sid Fernandez and closer Lee Smith. That's three times as much money as any of the other four American League East teams has spent on free agents this winter, and it doesn't include the three-year, $10.25 million contract given to outfielder Brady Anderson; the $1.8 million spent to keep designated hitter Harold Baines for another year; or the signings of three other free agents (reliever Mark Eichhorn, infielder Rene Gonzales and outfielder Henry Cotto) who provide much-needed depth.

"They're a lot better club," says Toronto general manager Pat Gillick, whose team was only a game ahead of Baltimore on Sept. 8, before the O's faded and finished tied for third at 85-77. Says Boston Red Sox manager Butch Hobson, "The Orioles scare me." And Detroit Tiger manager Sparky Anderson calls Baltimore "the team to beat."

The Orioles were beaten last year mainly because the penurious Jacobs refused to allow his payroll to exceed $30 million, a figure ranking in the bottom third of the American League. Consequently they came up short in their pursuit of free agent Paul Molitor, who signed with Toronto after the 1992 season, and they couldn't afford to deal for San Diego Padre first baseman Fred McGriff, who went to the Atlanta Braves last July. The Orioles' pickup for the stretch run was 37-year-old outfielder Lonnie Smith, who was no factor. "The effort from management was inadequate," says Angelos. So this winter he asked Oates, "What do you need? What do you want?" Then Angelos delivered.

The major void, at first base, was filled by Palmeiro, who signed a five-year, $30.35 million deal. Last year Baltimore first basemen combined to hit just 11 homers (lowest in the league) and drive in 74 runs (second lowest) while Palmeiro had 37 homers and 105 RBIs for the Texas Rangers. Better still, he bats lefthanded—perfect for the short rightfield fence (318 feet down the line) at Camden Yards. "When I was in Baltimore in December," Palmeiro says of his meeting with Angelos, "he walked into a restaurant, and everyone stopped. That shows the power he has. He made a promise to get players, and he's kept it. Potentially, this is the best offensive club in the league."

Sabo, who drove in 82 runs last year for the Cincinnati Reds, fills another gap at third, where the Orioles got only 65 RBIs (tied for second worst in the league). In accepting a one-year, $2 million contract with Baltimore, he turned down a better offer from the New York Mets ($2.5 million, with an option year). "I wanted a team that could win now," says Sabo.

The Oriole rotation had a lofty 4.57 ERA last year, so Baltimore came up with a three-year, $9 million package for the Mets' Fernandez, the corpulent and oft-injured lefty whose funky delivery should baffle hitters who aren't used to seeing him. It was tough enough for those who were familiar with him; after the All-Star break last season, National League rivals batted a combined .172 against Fernandez, lowest in baseball for that period. To help repair an Oriole bullpen that unraveled over the last 94 games—closer Gregg Olson missed 51 games with an elbow injury—Baltimore signed Smith to a one-year, $1.5 million contract. While Smith no longer throws as hard as he did in becoming the alltime save leader (401), the 6'6" reliever had 46 saves for the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Yankees last season, has shed 11 pounds—to 258—and still has a dominating presence.

It must have been devastating for Jacobs to be forced to relinquish this gold mine of a team. The Orioles drew 3.6 million fans in '93, and with more than 3.2 million tickets already sold, they expect to attract 3.8 million this season. Baltimore was the most profitable team in baseball last year, netting between $25 million and $30 million. That means the franchise sale price of $173 million, the most ever for a sports team, was a relative bargain. As the city's only major league franchise, the Orioles are embraced as a civic treasure—and that affection spreads to the Washington area, where 30% of the team's paying customers come from. There are 27,500 season-ticket holders, with 10,000 waiting on deck.

Angelos, 64, has been a fan of the Orioles since their arrival in 1954, but he didn't consider purchasing the team until January 1993, when the protracted efforts to sell the club had narrowed to several groups of out-of-town suitors. "That rankled me. I couldn't accept that," says Angelos, who eventually put up more than $40 million of the purchase price, $20 million more than the next largest investor among his 20 partners, novelist Tom Clancy. "The team was going to an out-of-town group by default. It wasn't a good reflection on our town, or our state, to sit passively by and let this happen."

Angelos called an old friend, William Donald Schaefer, the former mayor of Baltimore who's now governor of Maryland, and announced his intentions. Recalls Schaefer, "He told me, 'Don, I'm going to buy the Orioles.' I said, 'Pete, that takes a lot of money.' He said, 'I have a lot of money.' So he went out and did it. Typical Pete. When he makes up his mind, nothing stands in his way."

No city needs or deserves local, caring ownership of its team more than Baltimore, a neighborhood-oriented, blue-collar town whose citizens are still somewhat paranoid after losing the NFL Colts and the NBA Bullets. This is a convivial, crab-cake-and-beer town, and it made for a horrible match with the aloof, reclusive Jacobs. He screamed at underlings for the slightest transgression and showed little regard for the team's heritage—he once gave Jim Palmer, the greatest Oriole pitcher ever, the cold shoulder at a Washington restaurant. Jacobs was chauffeured everywhere he went, rarely attended games and when he did show up, used his private box only to hobnob with associates. "Eli didn't care if the ball club won or lost," says one Oriole employee, "as long as the food was on time."

By comparison, Angelos is Baltimore. He's an engaging little man (although he's 5'6", he likes to point out that "I weigh 175 pounds, I wear a 43 jacket—I'm not little") who drives his own car, works 14-hour days, eats lunch at his desk and seems at case with everyone. "I've spoken more to Peter in four months than I did with Mr. Jacobs in four years," Oates says. At a Baltimore restaurant this winter Angelos gleefully engaged in a debate with an 11-year-old boy on ways to improve the team. He even discusses trade possibilities openly with the media, claiming that "the more the public knows, the better."

Angelos grew up in Highlandtown, a lower-middle-class section of Hast Baltimore where the residents still scrub the white marble steps in front of their uniform row houses. The son of Greek immigrants, he tended bar in his father's tavern, where, in the 1950s, some of the Oriole players were patrons. He went to the University of Baltimore Law School at night, then served one term as a city council member and ran for mayor in 1967. "I got clobbered," Angelos says, but he was the city's first mayoral candidate to run on a biracial ticket.

"He's tough as hell," says Schaefer. "He won't back down against anyone."

By the late '70s Angelos was at the forefront in litigating cases on behalf of workers who suffered from exposure to asbestos. Over the past 15 years he has negotiated settlements or won damages totaling more than $1 billion. To date he has represented some 10,000 clients and now operates out of nine offices in five states. He argues many cases himself, seldom using notes. He is characterized by associates as brilliant, willful, a quick study, a street fighter.

As the Orioles' majority owner, Angelos is already living up to his reputation for acumen. He's having swivel seats installed to correct the sight lines in a left-field section of Camden Yards. He's returning some of the stadium's best scats, which Jacobs had turned over to cronies, to season-ticket holders. He intends to use the team's private boxes to entertain civic leaders, from police chiefs to college presidents. Next year he plans to add 1,500 seats, which he says will be designated for free use by children's groups.

Angelos has quickly stamped himself as a hands-on owner even though he's rarely seen around Camden Yards because of the demands of his law practice. Against the wishes of his baseball people, he nixed the signing of free-agent first baseman Will Clark and made the decision not to tender a contract to Olson because he felt that both players, with their recent history of injury, were risky investments. Even so, Jeff Moorad, the agent for both Clark and Olson, says that Angelos "will be tremendous for baseball. He's a bottom-line owner who has a lot of fan in him. It appears he will be as involved as necessary, but sensitive enough to back off the baseball side."

Despite the popularity of many of his early moves, Angelos has created some tension in the club's front office. Baltimore general manager Roland Hemond, one of the most loyal front-office men in the game, became so frustrated at having to consult with Angelos before making personnel moves—and often had so much difficulty locating him—that in late November, he was ready to resign. Angelos talked him out of it, but two members of the business operation have quit since Angelos took over, and two others were fired, leaving that department with mostly accountants and former bankers who have no baseball experience.

The team's president for five years, Larry Lucchino, also resigned last October, turning down Angelos's lucrative offer to become vice chairman of baseball operations because he felt Angelos would insist on handling most of the duties himself. Not that Lucchino faults the new owner. "I'm optimistic that Peter is the last piece of the puzzle," says Lucchino. "His commitment to winning could be the start of a golden era for the Orioles."

It was Lucchino who beefed up the team's minor league system and its scouting department. The Orioles drafted wisely in recent years and acquired, at little initial cost, key players such as outfielder Mike Devereaux, pitcher Alan Mills and catcher Chris Hoiles. Some observers question whether Angelos will pay the same kind of attention to player development. Angelos says he will.

Angelos insists he has the time to be both a good lawyer and an effective owner. "Once the critical phase of improving the team is completed," he says, "it should operate with minimum involvement on my part. There's a belief that I'm going to be engrossed in this. I'm not going to do that."

Around baseball the swift, big-money moves by Angelos could be interpreted as reckless, coming at a time when 18 of the 28 teams are supposedly losing money. But acting commissioner Bud Selig says, "The Orioles know their budget. We assume they know what they're doing. They have a huge revenue base." However, a baseball executive says, "There have been raised eyebrows among owners. There's always a concern when a new owner immediately becomes a big player in free agency."

Warning: Angelos isn't done playing. His payroll has already jumped to between $35 million and $40 million for '94, but the Orioles are still in the hunt for another starting pitcher, possibly the Houston Astros' Pete Harnisch, a former Oriole. "If a need arises, you must follow through," says Angelos. "You can't say, 'That's it. I gave you a budget. I don't want to hear any more.' That's what was happening here before."

"When he says he's going to get another pitcher, it's just a matter of time," says Palmeiro. "He wants a winner."

That's what Angelos says too. He says he isn't in this for the money or the attention (and, no, he isn't going to run for governor, despite Schaefer's encouragement). His primary motivation is to bring a championship to his people, the people of Baltimore. If it happens, Oriole fans will be using their bodies to spell out A-N-G-E-L-O-S.

PHOTOAL TIELEMANSSomething of a local landmark himself, Angelos has imported (clockwise, from top left) Palmeiro, Sabo, Smith and Fernandez.PHOTOJIM COMENTUCCI/ALLSPORT[See caption above.]PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMON[See caption above.]PHOTOSCOTT JORDAN LEVY[See caption above.]PHOTOJOHN IACONO[See caption above.]PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONNow a $10 million man, Anderson will help the 0's make a run at Toronto.PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMON