Angelos, the authoritative O's owner

Daily Record Business Writer
July 2, 2009 4:15 PM

Looking around Peter G. Angelos’ office on the 22nd floor of One Charles Center, you’d never guess he had anything to do with the Baltimore Orioles.

The tiny clues are practically drowned out by the brilliantly distracting view of the Inner Harbor, the artwork on the walls and the display shelves that house statues and honors from legal and horsemen’s associations.

If you’re looking for something to tell you he’s the owner of Baltimore’s oldest franchise, there’s a notepad with a Major League Baseball logo on his desk and a couple of baseball-related books stacked behind his desk. That’s it.

“I’d insist [people] refer to me as a competent lawyer first,” he said when asked how he wanted to be remembered. “The Orioles are strictly secondary. Or maybe third or fourth.”

But like it or not, that’s not how Baltimore’s baseball fans see it. Angelos says he and his ownership group bought the team to ensure it would remain controlled by Baltimoreans, but many say his micromanaging style has turned a perennial winner into a perennial disappointment.

Angelos has been labeled a “meddler” by the media. And recently named him the worst owner in baseball, citing a history of front office instability and 11 straight losing seasons.

“I think that’s unfair,” said Robert A. DuPuy, president and chief operating officer of MLB. “He owns the team, he has a right to be involved in the key decisions with the team.”

A ‘blind rage’

But Patrick Walters, a season ticket holder since 2005, said Angelos “nixed so many deals and got involved so much that he ran the team into the ground.

“There are times I’ve experienced a blind rage over the past 10 years,” said Walters, 33, who noted that Angelos’ hiring of Andy MacPhail as the Orioles’ president of baseball operations has eased that feeling.

But has Angelos gotten a bad rap? Even one day before his 80th birthday, it’s too soon to tell.

His friends say he’s the kind of man who will step up to the plate — no pun intended — as was the case in August 1993, when he and an eclectic band of Maryland-based investors bid a then-record $173 million to return the Orioles to local ownership for the first time since 1979.

“He assembled a group of people not only committed to keeping the Orioles in Baltimore but committed to putting a quality team on the field,” said longtime friend Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., president of the Maryland Senate. “If it hadn’t been for some bad luck in terms of draft choices and players that didn’t pan out … I think he could have gone down as one of the all-time heroes of Baltimore.”

Described as sharp-witted, brash and self-determined, Angelos brought the authoritative style that he’d demonstrated in politics and the law to the team.

Announcing to the media that year that he would sign off on every major and minor decision for the club, he’s made good on his word over the years, shuffling the front office positions or requiring multiple physical examinations of players before signing (or not signing) them to long-term contracts.

“There was initially a great warmth that the team was finally back to local ownership,” said Marty Conway, the Orioles director of marketing under the two previous owners, Edward Bennett Williams and Eli S. Jacobs. Conway, now a director of strategic partnerships at AOL, left the O’s for a job with the Texas Rangers in 1993.

“That seemed to last for a few years. Then [it] became [a] question of, ‘Can we really field a competitive team?’” he said.

Not an easy start

Angelos didn’t exactly get off to an easy start. One year after he bought the team, the players went on strike on Aug. 12, 1994. As a strong supporter of labor unions, Angelos was the only one of 28 owners who did not endorse using replacement players.

“He was an outspoken critic of that plan,” said DuPuy. “There was a difference of opinion between him and a significant segment of the owners.”

Angelos’ relationship with MLB executives has grown closer over the years. He represented baseball owners during the last two collective bargaining agreements (including the first agreement reached without a work stoppage since 1969) and plans to again in 2010. But the labor attorney, who can easily spend 10 minutes digressing about the history of unions, remains staunch about the position he took as a new owner, saying he’d do the same today.

“[Did it] antagonize all the other affluent owners? Yeah, they didn’t like that at all,” he said. “It didn’t trouble me then and it doesn’t trouble me now.”

Angelos estimates the Orioles lost $20 million in potential revenue during the 234-day strike, which ended in the spring of 1995.

However, the popularity of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, then just three years old and a leader in MLB attendance, was a bright spot in the early years of Angelos’ ownership. The Orioles also drew national attention in 1995 when Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak of 2,130.

But with the strike over, the front office moves during the following decade brought criticism from fans and the media. In 1996, Jon Miller, the longtime voice of the Orioles, left Baltimore for the San Francisco Giants, and the media portrayed the departure as a bitter one.

Angelos declined to comment on the record about what happened except to say that Miller was not fired and that the circumstances surrounding his departure had been misrepresented.

But the loss hit hard in Baltimore.

Unpopular moves

“There were some unpopular moves during those years, and losing … Miller as the voice of the O’s was definitely one of them,” said Mike Miller.

And beginning with Johnny Oates, the manager of the team until Angelos fired him after the players strike, the O’s are on their eighth manager since 1993. They last made the playoffs in 1997. Angelos, who had stated when he bought the team his priority would be on developing and bringing up talent from the minor leagues, also began spending money on older but proven players like Sammy Sosa, Javy Lopez and Miguel Tejada.

It was a departure from the homegrown emphasis that had become a signature of the “Oriole Way” during the days of Ripken, Eddie Murray and Brooks Robinson.

“When Jeff Conine was standing out there like a … statue, I don’t want to see that,” said Walters. “I don’t mind watching Adam Jones or Matt Wieters strike out [now] because I know that in two years that turns into a home run.”

Angelos said this week that looking back, firing Oates was the wrong decision because he’d been too quick to change.

“Continuity is used a lot by sports writers and so on, and I personally didn’t think that was valid,” he said. “I thought you needed change and so on. But sports fans like continuity … I made a decision then which was not consistent with the tradition of baseball and didn’t take into account the feelings of fans because I didn’t understand it then.”

The mounting losing seasons — beginning in 1998 — coincided with draft picks that weren’t panning out. Angelos recalls in the 1999 draft, the Orioles had seven early picks and selected what they thought were very promising players. Of that group, only Brian Roberts has played in an Orioles uniform.

“We just didn’t do very well with our amateur draft selecting,” Angelos said. “We have started to since 2005. We had a long drought where whoever was being selected just simply didn’t work out for us. And … that can happen in baseball.”

A loss off the field

Meanwhile, Angelos lost a huge off-the-field battle in 2005 when Major League Baseball decided to relocate the Montreal Expos to Washington, 40 miles away. The Orioles owner had ardently maintained for years that the region could not support two baseball franchises.

And after the decision was made to put the Expos in Washington, Angelos had a long and difficult negotiation with the MLB on how his franchise would be compensated for losing a large part of what had become its television market.

When asked what the most difficult part of ironing out a deal with Angelos was, DuPuy was succinct:

“He didn’t want the Expos in Washington. That took up a lot of the time.”

The final deal included a guarantee that Angelos and his partners would get at least $365 million if they sold the Orioles and the rights to broadcast Nationals games on the Orioles’ newly formed Mid-Atlantic Sports Network.

“He was doing what you expect an owner to do in those circumstances — he was defending his franchise,” said Donald M. Fehr, president of the Major League Baseball Players Association.

But by then, many Baltimore fans didn’t see Angelos’ actions as protective of the team’s interests. In 2006 came one of the most pronounced expressions of discontent when local radio host Nestor Aparicio spearheaded a “Free the Birds” walkout at Camden Yards during an afternoon game.

Aparicio, an outspoken critic of the team, said the protest, in which more than 1,000 people participated, wasn’t meant to be mean spirited.

“I don’t really care who owns the team,” he said. “All we want them to do is fix it.”

MacPhail was hired a year later as the team’s president of baseball operations, but Angelos said it was not a response to the walkout.

“I didn’t pay any attention to that — I thought it was bizarre,” he said, noting that he had known MacPhail for years and had approached him right after he left the Chicago Cubs and became available.

Loyal to friends

The Orioles owner doesn’t take what he sees as injustices lightly.

“He’s very loyal to friends,” said Miller. “But you definitely wouldn’t want to cross him.”

But Angelos has had to grow thick skin over the years, noting his courtroom experience with overbearing judges has helped.

“As time passes, I don’t think about it any more,” he said. “Can I stand back and say was some of [the criticism] justified? Yes. But there were major items where it simply wasn’t accurate.”

Even when watching his team lose while in his suite at Camden Yards — which he says he can’t stand — he maintains a cool exterior.

“He’s also trying to be a good host, but at [the] same time focusing on his team so he doesn’t get excited,” said Miller. “He keeps a quiet demeanor, but I know it’s breaking his heart [to see them lose].”

Angelos’ colleagues said he has the ability to overlook the labels he’s been given.

“Nobody is as self-secure as he is,” said Gerald E. Evans, a longtime friend and lobbyist for the Orioles. “Is it niggling? Yeah …When you win, you’re a hands-on manager; when you lose, you’re a meddler.”

His friends and colleagues note that Angelos annoyingly doesn’t take credit for his charitable acts. From underwriting scores of events in Baltimore to donating money to an Annapolis institution but refusing to have a building named for him (according to Evans who was not allowed to reveal more details), Angelos tends to gloss over his philanthropic side.

“If he has a fault, it’s that he doesn’t take credit for what he does in the community,” Evans said.

‘Everyone comes and everyone goes’

When asked what he thought his legacy to Baltimore would be, Angelos raised his eyebrows and scoffed.

“Everyone comes and everyone goes,” he said. “This is just a split second in a moment of time.”

To baseball fans, however, Angelos’ lasting impression may not be cemented just yet. Many say they approve of the new direction the team is taking with MacPhail at the helm and Angelos seemingly on the sideline.

But the attorney said his involvement with the team hasn’t changed and he’s open to investing money in free agent pitching in the off-season.

After all, he’s the kind of guy who will not stand for missing out on an opportunity.

“He has the sort of eyes that take in everything about [the] scene around him,” said Fehr. “He’s determined to have his influence matter.”

Daily Record staff writer Danny Jacobs contributed to this article.