In rent game, Orioles find pushover in city


August 30, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

Perhaps you've been reading where the Orioles and the city are renegotiating the lease at Memorial Stadium, and you find it confusing. Me, too. Which is why I put on my reporter's hat (it's the one with that little press card sticking out) and came up with the minutes to a recent negotiating session. I'll share them with you.

Orioles: We'd like to pay less rent at Memorial Stadium.

Baltimore: Fine.

Orioles: No, I said less rent.

Baltimore: Fine.

Orioles: Wait, I don't think you get it. We've got an ironclad contract with you folks, and we want you to tear it up so we don't have to pay you millions of dollars, even though we're leaving the stadium in about a month and we won't even say thanks.

Baltimore: Fine.

Now, what can we learn from this? Two things. One, rich people hate to spend money, which is why they are rich. If there's anything you can count on, it is that the Orioles will spend as little as possible on rent, players, tips for parking lot attendants, whatever. And the other thing is that the Baltimore City Fathers ++ will agree to anything the Orioles want.

What can we do? There's only one thing, and that is, in the city in love with slogans, come up with a new one.

* The City That Rolls Over.

* The City That Caves In.

* The City That Reads, Except for Contracts, Which, Basically, Are Boring Anyway, And, While We're On the Subject, What The Heck Is A Tort?

Speaking of the city that reads, we have a slight problem making that dream a reality. Because there isn't enough money in the city budget, some of the libraries are now closed on Sunday. The system doesn't have nearly enough money to buy all the books it needs. Hours are shorter everywhere. If you want to read, you've got to read quickly, and don't count on finding something new.

Would a couple million bucks help?

Maybe the millions would, but, you see, the Orioles need the money more. Honest. They need the money because, well, OK, you're not going to believe this, so let me give you some background first.

In the lease, as currently constituted, the Orioles have a profit-sharing arrangement. Half the team's profits go toward the lease payment. In some years, the city got as little as $80,000. That was a lean year, which was all right because we knew there would be some fat ones, like 1989, when the Orioles paid more than $5 million. That was when Eli Jacobs took over the team.

He came in the next year in search of a give-back, asking to charge interest payments on the loan he took out to buy the team as an operating expense. The lease didn't allow it, but the kindly City Fathers said yes when they heard the reason. Hold on, here it is, from actual, honest-to-gosh minutes from a Board of Estimates meeting. A lawyer representing the Orioles is speaking about the interest payments:

" . . . what it means for us as a baseball team is that there is lesscash for us to acquire players."

I added the italics because I love adding italics, and because though you can believe the Orioles want to pay less money, you would never believe they'd offer that rationale. I mean, the team with the second-lowest payroll in baseball? If the Orioles said they needed the money to give the queen an appropriate parting gift, you'd buy that. Or to pay overdue book fines, sure. But when the team lawyer says the Orioles need the money to "stay competitive in a cash situation with other baseball teams," you check to see if you're in the right town.

The Orioles didn't stop there, of course. Off the field, these guys are relentless. In 1990, they reportedly deducted from their profit sheet a $750,000 management fee the team paid to E.S. Jacobs & Co., an investment company headed by you-know-who. It was the same year that the Orioles deducted their $8 million collusion payment from their profits, meaning, under the terms of the lease, the residents of Baltimore paid half, or $4 million, of the fine levied against all baseball owners for cheating. The Orioles' rent in 1990 was reduced to $1.8 million.

This year, the Orioles are headed for record attendance despite a terrible season. Do the Orioles thank the city for its support by offering to pay their fair share? Well, not exactly. They want to renegotiate, and the mayor is happy to help out. Why? Does he think it's better to get a flat fee -- say $3 million, the figure being bandied about -- than it would be to get, say, $6 million or $7 million or more, as they should under the terms of the lease?

You can see now that Baltimore is not The City That Can Handle Even Simple Math.

It isn't a done deal yet. They're still negotiating. There's time for the city to come to its senses. On the other hand, the Orioles could still win the pennant. I'd say it's about an even bet.

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