A white knight to buy Orioles? It's a fairy tale


June 08, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

The news that Eli Jacobs is considering selling the Orioles will stir no anguish among the loyal order of Bird lovers. They have, no doubt, indulged in a common fantasy the last few days. Call it the "owner as white knight" fantasy. It goes something like this: We get rid of this guy Jacobs, see, and we get a new owner who'll spend some bucks. Yeah.

If only it were as easy as that. It isn't. The truth is that there is no guarantee that a new owner would be any more liberal with his money than Jacobs. In fact, the game's current economics would make it difficult for any new owner to ride in as a white knight and start spending what is needed to improve the Orioles' marginal lot.

See, any new owner would join an underclass of owners that has come to exist in the last decade, as franchise prices have soared. This underclass consists of those who spent many, many millions to buy a team, with a healthy chunk of the sum borrowed. They must pay on their debt every year, putting them in a sizable hole before the first ticket is sold.

The game's longtime owners do not have such a debt. It is highly unlikely Gene Autry, who has owned the Angels since 1961, owes a penny on his purchase. Same with George Steinbrenner. Ewing Kauffman spent just a couple million to buy the Royals years ago. These owners are not in the hole before the first ticket is sold. It is much easier for them to spend on free agents.

Think about it. A new owner of the Orioles would first need to scare up $100 million to buy the team, a daunting task certain to leave him owing money to someone somewhere. Then he is expected immediately to rush out and throw more money around on the speculative prospect of free agents? At a time when he is paying on a big debt and his competition is not?

Maybe such an owner exists, but unless Sam (Wal-mart) Walton buys the club, the greater likelihood is that the new owner would come in and measure his check-writing carefully. The "owner as white knight" fantasy is a pleasant indulgence (We get Strawberry! And Bonilla! And anyone else we need!), but it is indeed just a fantasy.

Of course, the new owner could get around the problem by paying cash for the team, avoiding the issue of debt altogether and freeing him to chase after a spate of free agents. But here is a lesson: People who are rich enough to buy baseball teams do not pay cash for anything. That is how they got rich in the first place. Using someone else's money.

No, we had best face the truth: The game's economics have created two tiers of franchises in terms of spending power, and the Orioles are in the lower tier. Any team that has been sold in the past three years is in the lower tier. The Padres. Mariners. Orioles. Have these teams shopped hard for free agents? No. Teams with longtime owners and no debt have been the shoppers.

Please understand that though this sounds like a defense of Jacobs' penuriousness, it is not intended as such. Jacobs has indeed faced a sizable debt, but his team also has turned a handsome profit.

It certainly is Jacobs' right to do what he chooses with his money, particularly when he has a debt to pay. But he could have made the Orioles a better team by putting some of his profit back into high-priced talent. He didn't. Maybe he needed the profit to stay even with his debt service. Maybe he just wanted the money.

There are owners who don't care. The Haas family, which owns the A's, puts every cent it makes back into the club. No more, but no less. Of course, it doesn't have much debt. Neither do the O'Malleys, owners of the Dodgers. They spend a ton on free agents this year. Maybe you're starting to notice a trend.

Had Jacobs been so inclined, the Orioles could have spent some free-agent money. They didn't. And you should ask yourself what you would do. The fans continue to stream in to watch his team lose. The opening of a new stadium guarantees that they will continue to stream in. Profits will remain high regardless of what happens on the field. What would you do?

Perhaps a new owner would arrive at his box in the new stadium at Camden Yards and, in a burst of sporting altruism, immediately begin spending every penny of his profit, debt be damned. The owner as white knight. It certainly is a pleasant fantasy, and, hey, with the Orioles' payroll ranked next-to-last in the majors, the new guy couldn't spend much less than Jacobs. He certainly would have more revenue, generated by the new stadium.

But there is a reality here that is impossible to ignore. As the price of franchises rises, franchises become less a romantic toy and more just another property to buy, hold, milk and sell, the estate of big-money men such as Jacobs. They are the ones who know how to put together such a large deal, and they aren't romantics. Maybe the Orioles will land in the lap of a big spender, but don't count on it.

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