Orioles need an owner with ties to Baltimore

MICHAEL OLESKER

December 27, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

If it is true, as reported, that a Mr. Bill DeWitt Jr. of Cincinnati, Ohio, and Arlington, Texas, is about to purchase the baseball team of Baltimore, he should enter city limits with this understanding: Nobody around here, excepting Mr. Eli Jacobs, particularly welcomes the sight of him.

That DeWitt, a Cincinnati oil executive and minor partner in the Texas Rangers baseball team, is apparently about to buy the Orioles, helps expose one more time that most cynical of myths about baseball being a game in which the hometown team reflects the hometown itself and maybe even cares about it.

Around here, we happen to know better. Do we need a refresher course in the duplicity of Edward Bennett Williams or, for that matter, Robert Irsay or even Abe Pollin?

In the Williams' biography, "The Man to See," Evan Thomas writes of Baltimorean Jerry Hoffberger reluctantly selling the Orioles and running into immediate problems:

"A proud and cantankerous man, Hoffberger was wary of the carpetbaggers who wanted to buy his team. He rightly suspected that . . . Edward Bennett Williams wanted to move the Orioles out of Baltimore and down the road to Washington."

Williams denied such newspaper reports at the time, saying he had no intention of moving the club if Baltimore fan support was "adequate." But he refused to define his very own term. And anyway, even that was a lie.

While Williams issued these denials, Thomas writes, he simultaneously "told Larry Lucchino to cruise up and down I-95 in a helicopter, looking for new stadium sites close to Washington."

What ultimately kept Williams here was simple: huge crowds, lavish money, a World Series triumph. The romance of the game, the emotional ties to the hometown? Give us a break.

Do we need a refresher in the lamentable passing of Abe Pollin's Bullets from Baltimore to Largo, or the nightmare of Irsay's Colts? It's too painful, and too familiar: men lacking emotional ties here, skipping town when things got a little tough.

And now we come to Eli Jacobs, for whom things have gotten so difficult that he is pursued by angry bankers. Desperate for cash, Jacobs prepares to sell to the highest bidder, and damn that stuff about hometown connections. Nothing personal, it's just business.

Doesn't anyone in baseball understand what's happening to their very own game? Once, we talked of not knowing the players without a score card. Then, with shifting franchises, you couldn't tell a team without a road map. Now you can't tell an owner without a resume.

Does it matter? Absolutely! The newcomers understand nothing of the town's emotions, the fans' idiosyncrasies, and care less. The fans figure this out fast enough, and something happens to old emotional ties. Doesn't baseball care? You lose the emotions, you lose the allegiance that turns an athletic contest into a love affair.

It's true in any sport. Robert Irsay sneered at a relationship that once had near-religious overtones, and lost those who had worshiped for decades at the shrine of the Baltimore Colts.

The reclusive Eli Jacobs lightens his payroll -- never mind the dumping of quality players -- to make his ballclub more financially attractive. And never mind if they're weaker on the field, because the club's already sold out for next season.

Bill DeWitt and several of his friends, all from distant places, have taken note of the Orioles' 3.5 million attendance last summer, and the new ballpark, and are reportedly ready to hand about $150 million to Jacobs.

Their offer is the highest, but not by much. Another group, headed by Leonard ''Boogie'' Weinglass, is within a few million bucks. Weinglass' group is comprised entirely of people with strong ties to Baltimore.

Eli Jacobs knows this but apparently doesn't care. In its bloodless way, that's understandable and maybe even characteristic of this mysterious man. What's less understandable is baseball's lack of concern over one more case of out-of-town ownership, and local elected officials' complete disinclination to jump in.

If we're talking about $5 million difference, or $10 million, does it not behoove the mayor of Baltimore, or the governor, to explore ways of making up the difference and getting local ownership?

What's at stake here isn't the possibility of DeWitt and friends moving the Orioles out of town, although that's a psychological cloud that never quite leaves us.

Hell, they'd be nuts to move a team making money the way the Orioles do.

But there's the rub: Money is everything now, and the temptation is simply to squeeze every nickel, and then sell to the next group of out-of-towners.

Shouldn't the game of baseball demand more of itself?

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