Owners make national pastime a big business


June 07, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

"Before I bought the Orioles, I was able to read two or three serious books a week. Now my reading has dropped to one book every two or three weeks. I'd like to go back to reading two or three serious books a week."

-- Eli Jacobs, explaining in the Washington Post why he wants to sell the Orioles.

Baseball owners are not your usual greed-head businessmen.

No, baseball owners are very special kinds of greed-head businessmen.

Let's say you are an ordinary guy with too much money on your hands. Let's say you are looking for a little investment and so you decide to buy a lawn furniture company.

In the lawn furniture business, certain marketplace forces affect how well you will do.

If you make lousy lawn furniture, for instance, you can expect to do poorly because people will not buy it.

You could try an emotional appeal to the public to buy your lawn furniture, but this probably would not work.

You could say: "People of Maryland, support your local lawn furniture! I know it's not very good lawn furniture, but it's your lawn furniture."

See what I mean? People would probably laugh at you.

Or, if you decided you needed a new lawn furniture factory, you could go to the state and say: "Build me a new factory. Here are the plans. And be sure you build me a nice skybox, too."

But most likely the state would also laugh at you and say: "You lTC must be dreaming, bud. Go build your own damn factory."

Imagine, however, you got very smart as well as rich, and instead of buying a lawn furniture company you decide to buy a baseball team.

Now you don't have to worry much about the quality of your product. That's right. Because even if you have a terrible year or a series of terrible years, you can still draw very large crowds.

And that's because the public has been brainwashed to believe (and the media help enormously with this) that baseball is more than a business.

The people are called upon to support their team through thick and thin, because of the emotional attachment the people have to that team.

The owners don't want to put too much money into building a good team? Who cares? It's still "our" team, isn't it? It's not just a commercial operation, it is a national pastime that embodies all that is pure and noble and great about our land.

And if the owners want to cynically exploit this emotional commitment, well, they'd have to be pretty goofy not to, right?

Take Edward Bennett Williams, the former owner of the Orioles. He decided he wanted a new stadium. As a rich man, he could have built one himself or put together a group of investers to build one.

But why should he when he had a patsy -- the state of Maryland -- willing to build a stadium for him?

Some thought Memorial Stadium was still perfectly good. And, in fact, the state had spent millions fixing it up to EBW's satisfaction. And more parking could have been provided nearby.

But no, EBW wanted a new stadium. And if he didn't get it, he hinted he would move the Orioles to another state. This was blackmail, pure and simple.

And the state went for it. "Please, EBW, kick us again," the state said. "It feels so good."

So Maryland committed $105 million to build a new ballpark for the Orioles. And the team was sold to Eli Jacobs, who got to decide what kind of stadium he wanted and what kind of stadium he didn't want. (He wanted one with nice skyboxes.)

Jacobs never wanted to spend too much money on the team, but why should he? He knew people would flock to the stadium like lemmings whether the Orioles were good, bad or indifferent.

Yesterday, however, we learned Jacobs may sell the team, which is his right as a businessman.

But what about Jacobs' emotional attachment to the team? What about his team spirit? What about his commitment to the national pastime?

Hey, get real. That's for the suckers who line up to buy the tickets. That's not for the owners.

And, you know, I kind of admire this.

Here is a guy who put together an investment group to buy the Orioles for $70 million and now they might be able to turn around three years later and sell the Orioles for $120 million.

Why would a last-place team be so valuable? Because of the new $105 million stadium paid for by the state of Maryland, that's why! (And don't fall for that line about how the stadium is being paid for with "lottery" money. It is being paid for with a special sports lottery that draws game players and dollars away from the regular state lottery. In other words, dollars that would have gone for education in Maryland are now going to build Jacobs a palace full of skyboxes.)

The one thing I criticize Jacobs for, however, is his lack of candor.

If I were him, I'd say: "Hey, I'm worth a half-billion dollars and I am going to make out like a bandit on this deal. I can buy and sell what I like, when I like and if any of you weasels don't like it, you can kiss my mistletoe."

But Jacobs isn't saying that.

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