Privacy and the Orioles

July 16, 1992

The Orioles are a great many things to this community: an excellent baseball team that is making an unexpectedly strong run for a pennant, a focus of civic pride, a downtown magnet for suburban dollars, occupants (and partial designers) of a beautiful ball yard, a nice bunch of guys who enjoy what they're doing and make us enjoy it with them. There is one thing the Orioles are not: an exclusively private business that can tell the general public to butt out of its affairs.

It would be churlish to begrudge the Orioles the bonanza they are enjoying at the ticket windows and concession stands. (But not to express the hope they decide to share a little more of it with Cal Ripken Jr. next year.) According to a financial plan unearthed by The Sun's Mark Hyman, they are attracting more fans and pocketing more money than even they expected before Opening Day. And their expectations were hardly modest: an $18.4 million operating profit, double last year's emotional farewell at Memorial Stadium.

Certainly the fact that the team is breathing down the necks of the Toronto Blue Jays helps draw sellout crowds even on weeknights. But so is the excitement about the brand-new Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

That's where the private business versus public interest comes in. The team is playing in a ball yard that has drawn national plaudits. Eli Jacobs, owner of the club, deserves considerable credit for its design. But he didn't pay for the ballpark. The public did.

Sure, Mr. Jacobs' Orioles will pay rent. That rent, however, can be determined by a profit-sharing formula devised by his predecessor, Edward Bennett Williams. That's why the public is entitled to a peek at the books.

It's not good enough to argue that public officials will audit the Orioles' records, nor that the club can decide to base its rent on other factors. The Orioles established a pretty good track record at leading city officials around by the nose when they were in Memorial Stadium. They even postponed their last rent payment there for three months because they were too busy moving to figure it out!

Maybe state officials will be stricter landlords. But the real owners of the ballpark -- the taxpayer, the lottery player, even the fan who buys those neck-straining seats out in left field -- have a right to unvarnished information. They are entitled to be confident that the Orioles are giving the public a square deal.

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