Outsider won't take Orioles from home

KEN ROSENTHAL

January 07, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

They're not going to move, OK? It doesn't matter whether the Orioles' next owner is from Baltimore or Bali. The team's 30-year lease at Camden Yards is as ironclad as they come, and, besides, no right-minded capitalist would pull an Irsay with the club drawing 3.5 million.

Thus, there's no reason to panic about the prospect of a Cincinnati-based group led by Bill DeWitt Jr. buying the Orioles. DeWitt is as comfortable in the world of baseball as in the world of finance. That's more than can be said for the club's current owner, Eli Jacobs.

If the sale occurs, DeWitt should be embraced for delivering the huddled masses from Jacobs' reign, not excoriated simply because he committed the grievous error of being born someplace other than Baltimore.

Let's stop the mindless xenophobia before it starts. Contrary to popular belief, an out-of-town owner does not represent the lTC lowest form of human existence. It's just that Baltimore got hit with Irsay, and then Jacobs. A double whammy.

After those two, the apprehension is understandable -- to a point. An out-of-town owner isn't necessarily bad. A local owner isn't necessarily good. The ideal is someone who grasps that a sports franchise is a public trust, where players and executives come and go, but the fans remain.

The odds of DeWitt's being that type of owner seem decent enough -- he's part of the 28-man limited partnership that controls the Texas Rangers, and his father owned the St. Louis Browns and Cincinnati Reds. It stands to reason that he enjoys the game.

Jacobs, on the other hand, had no prior connection to baseball, other than a 6-for-6 day he once enjoyed at summer camp and the subway rides he once took to his beloved Fenway Park. From every indication, he runs the Orioles not for pleasure, but sheer profit.

That's why he's a bad owner -- not because he's a New Englander who made his fortune in New York. Would Jacobs run the Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees any differently? Of course not. But, by golly, he'd be considered local.

The San Francisco 49ers' Eddie DeBartolo is widely regarded as one of the best owners in sports, and he's from Youngstown, Ohio. Jack Kent Cooke built the Los Angeles Lakers and then the Washington Redskins into empires, and he's from Hamilton, Ontario.

On the flip side, there are local owners like the Bidwills -- the father moved the football Cardinals out of Chicago, the son out of St. Louis nearly 30 years later. And let's not forget Horace Stoneham and Walter O'Malley, the New Yorkers who took the Giants and Dodgers to California.

Besides, what defines a local owner? The Chicago White Sox's Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn aren't natives, but they graduated from Northwestern Law School, and Chicago is their adopted hometown. That didn't stop them from threatening to move to St. Petersburg a few years back.

Make no mistake, a local owner for the Orioles would be preferable, a sports nut like Boogie Weinglass most preferable of all. But if it doesn't happen, who's to blame? Not Jacobs, who wants only to sell to the highest bidder. And not major-league baseball, which can't create a buyer.

If local ownership is so important, then a local owner should step forward. Weinglass is but one candidate. Where are the others? It's a free country. The state legislature hasn't passed a law prohibiting Baltimore interests from buying the club.

The Orioles had a local owner once -- Jerry Hoffberger. He did a nice job on the baseball side, but as a businessman, he might not cut it in today's game. Hoffberger sold to Edward Bennett Williams for $12 million in 1979. Nine years later, Jacobs paid almost six times that price.

Where was Hoffberger?

Trying to buy back the club.

Now, along comes Bill DeWitt. He can't be any more bottom-line than Jacobs, and Williams did his dirty work in securing a new ballpark. In other words, there's nothing to fear -- except for that old Baltimore standby, fear itself.

It's funny, but not even Williams seems so evil anymore. For all his faults, the high-powered Washington attorney wanted desperately to win. And, for all his apparent desire to relocate to D.C., he kept the Orioles in Baltimore, where Camden Yards is now a lucrative tourist attraction.

A local owner would be wonderful, but it's no longer essential. Besides, you can't overlook the fact that DeWitt's father traded Frank Robinson to the Orioles before the 1966 season. The city owes the family, wouldn't you say?

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