Eli the Enigma

August 28, 1992

One question mark hovering over Camden Yards disappeared earlier this week with the signing of Cal Ripken Jr. to a new contract. Now another question, fuzzier and a lot harder to focus on, has taken its place. We know the answer to "Whither Ripken?" Now the question arises, "Whither the Orioles?" Or does it?

One thing's for sure. The old panic about the Orioles moving elsewhere that used to afflict Baltimore fans is gone for 14 years. An ownership change might -- just might -- be in the offing. But a move isn't. The lease on the ballpark is firm. And organized baseball wouldn't dare shift a franchise that is selling out game after game, good opponents and bad, Tuesdays as well as Sundays.

But some other things aren't so certain. Eli Jacobs, owner of the Orioles, is said to be willing to sell the club for $200 million. That's nearly triple what he paid for it in 1988. It's also nearly double the price recently paid to keep the Mariners in Seattle and what was negotiated to move the San Francisco Giants to St. Petersburg.

JTC That's old news. The new news is that Mr. Jacobs has been sued by a bank he once had a very close personal relationship with for failure to make timely payments on a loan. We are assured that there is no connection between the loan and the Orioles. Still, one stipulation in the loan was that it must be repaid immediately if Mr. Jacobs sells the team before the final due date next month.

What does all this amount to? Given Mr. Jacobs' vigorous aversion to discussing his personal finances -- and his pugnacious reaction to suggestions he might not be rolling in money -- we are left to guess. Certainly the Orioles are not in any financial difficulty. Quite the opposite. They are rolling in money, even after committing $30.5 million to Mr. Ripken for the next five years.

But for reasons best known to himself, Mr. Jacobs has not paid interest on a $21.3 million loan agreement he signed in June. Financiers who operate at Mr. Jacobs' level routinely deal with banks in ways that would give the rest of us chills.

So the lawsuit and its tangential reference to a sale of the Orioles might mean little. Or a lot. Orioles fans are left analyzing shadows on the wall, unsure whether the images they reflect are tiny or huge.

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