It's easy to say good-buy to Jacobs ... and fans will profit from owner who invests concern as well as money

Ken Rosenthal

June 07, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

Maybe Orioles fans should take up a collection, but they've already turned over too much of their hard-earned money to Eli Jacobs. The best approach now is to contact your local millionaire and beg for salvation.

Jacobs suddenly is talking about selling the club, and one can only hope he succeeds. He cares little if the Orioles fire their manager. What he really wants is a healthy profit margin, and a night out with the Secretary of Defense.

Even when it's relatively quiet in his private box, Jacobs rarely watches the games he attends. He dines in luxury, chats with his high-powered friends, stretches his oversized frame. We all know he can balance a ledger sheet. No one knows if he can keep score.

For all his faults, late owner Edward Bennett Williams was desperate to win. His protege, club president Larry Lucchino, is the same way. Jacobs, on the other hand, seems more concerned with throwing an Opening Day party for 600 than his team playing below .500.

Now, no one can deny a man's right to pursue riches in a land that gave us both Howard Hughes and M.C. Hammer. But with the Orioles, Jacobs oversteps his bounds. He treats them solely as a private investment, when in reality they're so much more.

A major-league team is a public trust in which the fans amount to part-owners. They buy the tickets, they purchase the souvenirs, they provide the television audience. In Baltimore, they're also building a new $105 million stadium that won't hurt the club's resale value any.

Maybe Jacobs hasn't noticed during his visits from New York, but the Orioles are an integral part of the fabric of this community. Their average attendance was nearly 2.5 million the first two years of his ownership. The final season at Memorial Stadium should be no less a windfall.

Even now, with a 15-year lease for the new ballpark in place, the fans are motivated not just by their love of the team, but the fear it might leave. Jacobs plays shamelessly to that fear, knowing attendance will continue to soar no matter how shoddy a product he puts on the field.

Oh yes, the product. The Orioles have the second-worst record in baseball, and they've been kidding themselves since nearly winning the AL East pennant with the game's lowest payroll in 1989. Somehow they think they can contend with Juan Bell and Jeff McKnight.

When they finally acquired a high-priced player, Glenn Davis, they refused to sign him for more than one year. Now Davis has a rare neck injury and is sidelined indefinitely. The Orioles still will pay him $3.275 million. And they still could lose him to free agency.

Expensive talent doesn't necessarily guarantee pennants, and a strong case can be made for the Orioles' preference to build through the farm system. That doesn't take Jacobs off the hook. He has a moral obligation to the fans. Not to win. To try.

Besides, where would you rather see the money?

In Eli's pocket? Or Willie McGee's?

The most galling thing is, Jacobs says he's considering getting out because of the toll the Orioles take on his lifestyle. He controls 25 companies, and this is the backbreaker? Lucchino handles almost all baseball-related business. Jacobs merely deposits the checks.

He headed a group that bought the team for $70 million. Now it might be worth $120 million. The Wall Street Journal recently detailed his financial difficulties. Most believed he wouldn't cash in until after hosting the 1993 All-Star Game, but here he is, claiming "a high level of interest" from potential investors.

Strange how this intensely private man suddenly sees fit to inform the world he'd like to do business (Cheap Players! New Stadium! What A Deal!). Jacobs almost certainly will receive other feelers now, hemming and hawing the whole way.

He told the Washington Post, "I would only sell to people of quality and substance who share my vision of what baseball in Baltimore is about." That vision amounts to even fewer victories, but more frequent visits by the Queen.

On second thought, take up that collection.

Clearing the bases

Orioles owner Eli Jacobs said he is considering selling the team, triggering a number of questions.

QUESTION: How much is the team worth?

ANSWER: The Orioles are believed to be worth $100 million to $120 million.

Q: How much did it cost Jacobs to purchase the team?

A: Jacobs headed a group that paid $70 million for the team in 1988.

Q: Is local ownership a possibility?

A: A possibility, but not a probability. As former Orioles owner Jerold Hoffberger said: "I didn't see anybody around [locally] when I was selling the team for $10 [million] or $12 million [in 1979]."

Q: Without local ownership, does it increase the chance of the team's moving?

A: No, because the team is bound by a 15-year lease that accompanies the opening of the Camden Yards stadium next season. Bruce Hoffman, executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority, said: "The language is crystal clear and there are no ifs or maybes. The team has to stay here for 15 full seasons."

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