Tom Gordon, a free-agent righthanded relief pitcher, wanted to
be a Baltimore Oriole. He liked the idea of closing games for a
monied franchise with a loyal fan base and a jewel of a ballpark
in baseball-mad Charm City. Syd Thrift, the Orioles' vice
president of baseball operations, invited Gordon and his agent,
Rick Thurman of Beverly Hills, Calif., to fly to Baltimore in
November to finish the deal. The two sides had the parameters in
place: a $2.5 million base salary with incentives that could
make Gordon among the highest-paid closers in baseball if he
finished more than 60 games. Gordon wanted those terms over four
years. Thrift floated three years or three plus a club option
for a fourth. Sensing that an agreement was near, Thurman booked
a flight from California.
Thurman arrived before Gordon at the Orioles' offices inside the
imposing redbrick converted warehouse next to Camden Yards. He
was escorted into a conference room adjacent to the office of
Peter Angelos, Baltimore's principal owner and managing partner.
Angelos is a famously successful litigator who has amassed a
fortune largely on health-related claims, especially involving
asbestos and tobacco. He is hypersensitive to ballplayers'
health, though his track record for signing durable players is
awful. After the meeting with Thurman began, it didn't take
Angelos long to realize that Thrift had talked about guaranteeing
three years of salary to a guy who had missed the entire 2000
season after blowing out his elbow. "Come into my office,"
Angelos told Thrift.
Thurman was left sitting in the conference room while Thrift, a
71-year-old with a perpetual hangdog look, shuffled behind
Angelos. The door to the owner's office closed, but it did
nothing to insulate Angelos's anger. For the next hour Thurman
sat listening to Angelos berate Thrift at paint-blistering
volume. Finally, the door opened. Angelos made it clear to
Thurman that the deal had changed. Three years was out of the
question. Gordon, upon hearing about the scene from Thurman,
wasn't so sure he wanted to be an Oriole anymore.
Later that day Thurman asked Angelos whether he thought
free-agent ace righthander Mike Mussina would be returning to
Baltimore. "He's not going anywhere," Thurman recalls Angelos
responding. "I'll give him free legal services. He wants to stay
here. I know him too well."
Within the next few weeks Mussina signed with the New York
Yankees and Gordon signed with the Chicago Cubs. Earlier,
free-agent shortstop Jose Valentin had taken less money over
fewer years than the Orioles had offered and re-signed with the
Chicago White Sox. Before Alex Rodriguez worked out his record
$252 million deal with the Texas Rangers, Angelos requested to
negotiate with his representative, Scott Boras, on a top-secret
basis; Rodriguez told the Orioles not to bother. Two other
free-agent righthanders, starter Kevin Appier and reliever Jeff
Nelson, rejected Baltimore's offers and signed with the New York
Mets and the Seattle Mariners, respectively.
"It's like we have Confederate money; it's no good," Thrift said
in his folksy Appalachian drawl at baseball's December winter
meetings. (Thrift says that the Orioles "never got involved with"
Rodriguez and that he had no disagreements with Angelos about the
Gordon negotiations. Angelos didn't respond to a request to be
interviewed for this story.) When Baltimore found players to take
its money, they were older ones with limited market value:
shortstop Mike Bordick, 35 (two years, $9.5 million), who was
returning to the Orioles after spending most of the second half
of the 2000 season with the Mets; first baseman David Segui, 34
(four years, $28 million), who also had played for Baltimore; and
righty Pat Hentgen, 32 (two years, $9.6 million).
On and off the field, the fall of the Orioles has been swift. In
1996 and '97 they came within two victories of playing in the
World Series, but they haven't had a winning season since, losing
more games and more paid fans with each successive year. Last
year, in tribute to their dullness as well as to their
ineptitude, they attracted fewer fans on the road than any other
team in the majors.
To hear Angelos tell it, he's a local boy who returned the
Orioles to Baltimore ownership, having purchased them for $173
million in 1993 out of bankruptcy court from New Yorker Eli
Jacobs. Barring a stunning rise--"They're terrible; they could
finish behind Tampa Bay [in the American League East]," predicts
one scout--Angelos in 2001 will give his hometown something it has
not seen since big league baseball returned there in 1954: four
straight losing seasons.
Worse, a perdition of the franchise's once brick-solid reputation
also has occurred under Angelos. His slash-and-burn management
style--he has whacked his way through four general managers, five
managers and six pitching coaches in his seven seasons, to say
nothing of the player turnover--has made Baltimore the object of
scorn and amusement around the game. "The most dysfunctional
front office in baseball," declares one prominent agent, who said
he communicates with the Orioles mostly by letter because
telephone calls often go unreturned.
Another agent says Baltimore is such an unstable organization
that one of his clients, an Oriole himself, advised his other
clients this winter, "You don't want to come here."
"The sad part is that with their fans, ballpark and tradition
they should be one of the crown jewels of the game," says an
American League executive. "But they're almost a laughingstock.
It's a shame."
In December, Thrift appeared on a Baltimore radio show to take
calls from fans. One of them asked him about an Orioles prospect
named Gary Dell'Abate. "I've heard that name, yes," Thrift said
on the air. Well, the caller said, Gary Dell'Abate is the name of
Howard Stern's producer.
Meanwhile, former Orioles executives with upstanding reputations
are scattered around baseball. The expatriates include general
managers Pat Gillick (Mariners), Kevin Malone (Los Angeles
Dodgers) and Doug Melvin (Rangers), Roland Hemond (White Sox
executive adviser to the general manager), Major League Baseball
vice president Frank Robinson and Atlanta Braves assistant G.M.
Frank Wren. Dan O'Dowd, now the Colorado Rockies' general
manager, rejected an overture from Angelos in 1998 to take the
same post in Baltimore after a meeting in which Angelos hinted
the general manager's latitude would be narrow.
What the 71-year-old Angelos (known as The Old Man to Orioles
insiders) has left in his inner circle are his sons, John, 33,
and Louis, 31 (known as The Boys), and Thrift, who has survived
seven years under Angelos. Thrift is credited with helping found
in 1970 the now defunct Kansas City Royals Baseball Academy, a
developmental program for prospects. As general manager of the
Pittsburgh Pirates from '85 through '88, Thrift hired manager Jim
Leyland and brought the Bucs to the cusp of contention. He has
bounced from jobs in and out of baseball and among six
organizations. As for his years in Baltimore, Thrift variously is
described by former colleagues as "a mole" for Angelos, "an I
guy, not a team guy" and a "knowledgeable baseball man" caught
under Angelos's thumb.
"The problem with the Orioles is poor leadership," Malone says.
"Peter is so involved in so many aspects of his own life that
it's hard for him to make the right decision because he stays
focused on baseball only 10 percent or 20 percent of the time.
You have to have your pulse on the day-to-day operations of the
game. Peter is in and out. It's hard to make the best decision
when you don't have a feel for it."
Angelos, as one owner likes to point out, has never taken a
partner into his law practice. He's the Orioles' de facto general
manager whenever he so chooses, as happened after a lackluster
first half of the 1996 season when he refused to allow then G.M.
Gillick to trade outfielder-DH Bobby Bonilla and lefthander David
Wells for young players (one of whom was budding slugger Jeromy
Burnitz). Baltimore rallied and won the wild card. "That is what
emboldened him," says one National League general manager. The
next year Angelos killed a deal that would have sent Jeffrey
Hammonds, a talented but injury-prone outfielder, to the Toronto
Blue Jays for outfielder Shawn Green, whose progress had stalled
but who would blossom into a star the next season.
Angelos spent lavishly and imprudently in his twin desires to
reward the fanatical support of Baltimore fans and to keep up
with the Yankees, his American League East archrivals. No man
ever spent so much money to lose so many games. At the beginning
of each season, the Orioles have ranked first, third and third,
respectively, in payroll ($83 million in 2000) during their
three-year losing skid.
Baseball clubs need a productive farm system to control costs
(younger players are cheaper) and to remain competitive.
Baltimore's system has provided Angelos with few reinforcements.
Over the past quarter century the Orioles have drafted only one
position player who made an All-Star team for them:
shortstop-third baseman Cal Ripken Jr., who was chosen in 1978.
Baltimore has erred on the evaluation of several players it
thought would be key contributors: foremost, righthander Rocky
Coppinger, first baseman-catcher Tommy Davis, third baseman Ryan
Minor, first baseman Calvin Pickering and catcher Jayson Werth.
Without a source of young talent, Angelos has continued to sink
money into his aging roster. After the 1997 season he gave
outfielder Brady Anderson a five-year deal. Anderson has hit only
.260 over the first three years of the contract and, at 37, has
exhibited declining skills in centerfield. In '98 the Orioles
gave five-year deals to outfielder-DH Albert Belle and
righthander Scott Erickson, a four-year deal to righty closer
Mike Timlin, a three-year deal to second baseman Delino DeShields
and a two-year deal to first baseman Will Clark. Erickson blew
out his elbow last season and will miss most of this one; Belle,
who hit only five home runs in the second half of last season,
has a worsening arthritic right hip; Timlin was a bust and Clark
was often injured before they were traded last season. DeShields,
now an outfielder, did have a productive 2000 season (.296, 37
stolen bases). Ripken, meanwhile, signed a one-year, $6.3 million
contract in November, though he's 40 and fighting a cranky back
that contributed to a .310 on-base percentage last year, worse
than all but 11 of the 116 American League players with at least
300 at bats.
In a cruel twist, Angelos's anxiety about fragile players cost
him a healthy pitcher in his prime after the 1999 season. He and
Thrift negotiated a four-year, $29 million contract with free
agent Aaron Sele, then 29 and an 18-game winner who had thrown
205 innings for Texas that year. Angelos, though, tore up the
deal after he saw his team physicians' medical reports, which
indicated Sele had some wear and tear in his right shoulder.
Angelos, concerned that Sele might not hold up for four seasons,
decided the deal should be for three years; Sele and his agent,
Adam Katz, angered about having the terms peremptorily changed,
wouldn't consider it. Sele instead made a deal with Seattle and
its new general manager--Gillick. Sele took two years from the
Mariners rather than three from the Orioles, then helped pitch
Seattle into the American League Championship Series with a
team-high 17 wins and 211 2/3 innings, 10th highest in the league.
This season Baltimore will replace Mussina (the league leader in
innings in 2000 with 237 2/3) at the top of the rotation with
either Hentgen, who had a 4.72 ERA for the St. Louis Cardinals
last year, or Jose Mercedes, a 29-year-old journeyman who pitched
145 2/3 innings last year. Only three players from the American
League East champion 1997 Orioles have continuously remained with
the team since: Anderson, Erickson and Ripken. (Bordick and
righthander reliever Alan Mills left and have returned.) From
that club, the only major league players Baltimore has to show
for losing free agents Mussina, second baseman Roberto Alomar,
first baseman Rafael Palmeiro and reliever Arthur Rhodes, and for
trading Hammonds, reliever Armando Benitez and leftfielder B.J.
Surhoff are catchers Brook Fordyce (obtained from the White Sox
for Charles Johnson, who was obtained for Benitez) and Fernando
Lunar (obtained from the Braves for Surhoff), and righthander
Luis Rivera (who also came in the Surhoff deal).
The names have changed, but the Orioles retain the most illogical
profile for a major league club: They are old and expensive
without being a contender. Seven of the nine spots in their
batting order this year are likely to be filled by players 30 or
older. Making matters worse, under the new, unbalanced schedule
Baltimore will play more than one third of its games against the
three American League East stalwarts, the Yankees, Blue Jays and
Boston Red Sox. "They're four or five years from being seriously
competitive," says one National League general manager.
Angelos appeared to have found the right man to rebuild the
Orioles following the 1998 season, after Gillick's departure upon
completion of his contract. As his general manager Angelos hired
Wren, then 40 and considered one of the promising executives in
baseball. Wren had helped cultivate a bountiful Montreal Expos
farm system in the late '80s before serving eight years as the
assistant G.M. of the Florida Marlins, who won the '97 World
Dozens of baseball people warned Wren about the Orioles job. But
this was his first chance to be a general manager. This was the
Orioles. They had money. Gillick was one of the people who
cautioned Wren about working for Angelos. "Look at it like you're
going there for three years, you'll get your experience and
you'll be moving on," Gillick told him.
Three years? Wren quit after two weeks. Angelos talked him out of
it. Wren and his scouts had long afternoon meetings in which they
charted the organization's course, only to have Angelos or one of
his sons call at 11 p.m. to say they were going in a different
direction. For instance, Wren decided one afternoon to go after
free-agent lefthander Randy Johnson. That night Angelos told him
the Orioles had no interest in Johnson.
Another time that winter, upon hearing the Yankees were
negotiating with Belle, who was a free agent, Angelos asked Wren,
"What do you think about Albert Belle?" Belle's name hadn't come
up until then. "As for talent, it's a no-brainer," Wren says he
replied, "but as for everything else, including the percentage of
the payroll he'd take up, I'm not sure." Angelos gave Belle $65
million over the five years.
Meanwhile, Wren, at the urging of Gillick and others, tried to
keep Thrift at arm's length. Gillick had portrayed Thrift as
untrustworthy and motivated by advancing his own standing with
the owner. Gillick had inherited Thrift on his staff when he was
named the Orioles' general manager on Nov. 27, 1995. Within
Gillick's first month on the job, Baltimore acquired four players
through free agency and trades who would be instrumental in
getting the Orioles to the American League Championship Series in
1996: Alomar, Surhoff, Wells and reliever Randy Myers. Thrift
says that Gillick was responsible for none of those additions.
"B.J. Surhoff, I knew him from his college days," Thrift says.
"My son and he were teammates at North Carolina. Myers was with
me with the Cubs. Mr. Angelos signed Alomar. Gillick didn't like
[Reds general manager Jim] Bowden. I made the deal with
Cincinnati for Wells."
When he was hired, Wren was told by a high-ranking Baltimore
executive, "You can't fire Syd, but you can reassign him to get
him out of your hair." So Wren sent Thrift on special scouting
In the last week of April 1999, Wren scheduled a routine
conference call for May 1 among his full-time scouts to discuss
the first month of the season. Thrift got wind of it. "Where's
that conference call going to be?" Thrift asked Wren.
"In my office," Wren replied.
"Who's going to be on it?" Thrift asked.
"What difference does it make?" Wren said.
"I just want to know."
"None of your business. I said the major league scouts."
"What's it going to be about?"
"You'll find out, Sid."
"Excuse me, but am I stupid? Was that a bad question I asked?"
"I don't think it's you who wants to know," Wren said.
Asked last month about his relationship with Wren, Thrift fairly
sang, "I got along with Frank Wren just fine."
The day after his blowup with Thrift, Wren was summoned to
Angelos's office. Angelos lit into him for keeping Thrift out of
the loop. Wren returned fire. "My contract says I report to you
and you only," Wren remembers saying. "If it's changed, you can
fire me right now!"
Angelos shot back, "That f------ Gillick's gotten to you!"
Angelos and Wren, their faces reddening, screamed at each other
for two hours, bringing stunned office workers within earshot to
a halt. That night Wren carried his dinner on a tray into his box
at Camden Yards just as the Orioles' game began. His assistant,
Bruce Manno, sat next to him. Then John and Louis Angelos walked
in, crossed their arms over their chests and asked Manno to
leave. Not until the seventh inning did The Boys leave, making
sure Wren understood he was never again to raise his voice like
that to Thrift or The Old Man.
When Angelos bought the Orioles in 1993, he asked Larry Lucchino,
Jacobs's top executive, to stay on. Lucchino wondered what role
Angelos's sons would play in the organization. "Let me assure you
my sons have 10 years practicing law ahead of them until they set
foot in the warehouse," Angelos replied. Lucchino decided to
leave. (He's now president and CEO of the San Diego Padres.)
Within three months after Peter Angelos gained control in
Baltimore, John was named special assistant to the chairman. He's
now listed as executive vice president. Louis has no title in the
organization. Says Thrift, "Louis isn't involved, and John's
primary involvement is the business operations. He's not involved
with trades or signings."
Wren remained defiant that night in his box in front of The Boys.
"You don't want me around?" he said, "Fine. Fire me right now.
I'll be more than happy to leave."
Angelos did fire Wren--BUT NOT UNTIL four days after the Orioles
had concluded an 84-loss season. Angelos used the same tactic to
explain the firing to the public that he'd employed when he ran
off manager Davey Johnson after the near-championship '97 season:
blow up a trivial incident as a fireable offense. Johnson had
resigned on the day he was named American League Manager of the
Year as a result of a squabble with Angelos over Johnson's
assignment of a fine paid by Alomar to a charity that employed
Johnson's wife, Susan. This time Angelos said Wren had to be
fired because (among other reasons) on Sept. 17 he'd ordered a
team charter plane to leave on time rather than wait for Ripken,
who had called to say he'd be late.
About 50 players and staff members had gotten to
Baltimore-Washington International Airport on time for that
morning's eight o'clock departure. The universal first rule of
baseball is: Be on time. Did Angelos, who had tweaked Ripken in
the past for not exerting enough leadership, realize that the
story looked worse for the beloved franchise player than for the
general manager? "He put Cal right in the middle of it," one
National League executive says.
Says another owner, "He did the same thing to Mussina. He sent a
letter to season-ticket holders saying he was holding prices
because he didn't sign Mussina. If Mussina had re-signed, the
prices would have gone up. You're blaming a [potential] ticket
increase squarely on your best pitcher. Great."
For two months after Wren's firing, Angelos split the general
manager's duties among a committee of executives and then in
December 1999 named Thrift as his point man. When told that
Malone had found Angelos too removed from the daily operations of
the club to make fully informed decisions, Thrift said he speaks
with Angelos regularly. "There aren't many days that I don't have
a conversation with Mr. Angelos," Thrift said.
Wren, even in one tumultuous year in Baltimore, may have left his
imprint on the club. The Orioles had seven of the first 50 picks
in the 1999 draft. They spent a lavish $8.125 million in bonuses
on those seven players. That draft, the first for well-regarded
director of scouting Tony DeMacio, who came to Baltimore from the
Cubs, began a restocking of the farm system that has drawn raves
from scouts and general managers. Yet the Orioles may have to
endure at least two seasons similar to the past three until that
wave of players is ready.
Meanwhile, the Baltimore-Washington media have an obvious
villain. Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser called Angelos
"a Napoleonic egomaniac"--and that was after the winning 1997
season. His colleague, Thomas Boswell, wrote after Mussina's
defection, "The only person in baseball who does not realize now
that Angelos has decimated the Orioles franchise is Angelos
"Peter Angelos is a brilliant guy," says one baseball owner.
"He's a brilliant lawyer. He has a lot of charisma. But there's
little sympathy on the ownership level for what's happened there.
I don't think he cares about the opinions of reporters. I think
he cares about the people of Baltimore. After buying from Eli
Jacobs, he was their Caesar returning in triumph. If Baltimore
turns on him--his people--that will bother him."
Any signs of such a revolution are but stray shots in a
monumental love affair with baseball by a city that has a recent
infatuation with its NFL champion Ravens and no NBA or NHL
presence. After the 1999 season there was a loosely organized
protest on the Web, and the Orioles have lost 5,000 paying
customers per game since '97. Even so, Baltimore last year drew
3,295,128 fans to its Wrigley-by-the-Inner-Harbor, a higher home
attendance than all other teams except the Cardinals, Cleveland
Indians, and San Francisco Giants.
More telling was the scene at the Baltimore Convention Center on
Jan. 13. It was the eve before the Ravens were playing for a
berth in the Super Bowl. It was the dead of a dark winter in
which Mussina, a popular homegrown Oriole, left because Angelos
never made him feel wanted. Still 10,000 people paid $5 (children
and senior) or $10 apiece to cram into the Convention Center for
the Orioles' annual Fanfest. Twenty thousand game tickets were
sold in the first hour alone. This was real money, not
Three years witness to a downward spiral, Baltimore pushed the
calendar ahead to those warm summer nights when Camden Yards
still sparkles like the best new car in any driveway on the
block. The aromatic haze from barbecued ribs wafts over
rightfield and Cal clubs one more ball into the leftfield seats
and just maybe one of these new kids from Rochester or Bowie is
the one to take the baton from dear old Rip. As ever, charmed.
A Disarming Decline
The fall of the Orioles is graphically symbolized by the rise of
their earned run average. In 1997, when Baltimore won the
American League East, the Birds had a 3.91 mark, second best in
the league. In the three seasons since, as the leaguewide ERA has
increased 7.7%, the Orioles' figure has ballooned 37%, with last
year's 5.37 putting Baltimore 12th. Take out the efforts of
departed ace Mike Mussina (right)--whose ERA rose from 3.20 to a
still respectable 3.79 over that span--and Baltimore's ERA
escalation reaches 41%. --David Sabino
EARNED RUN AVERAGES 1997 1998 1999 2000
American League 4.56 4.65 4.86 4.91
Orioles 3.91 4.74 4.77 5.37
Orioles minus Mussina 4.04 4.95 4.98 5.68