O's fans yearn for buyers who care about the town

April 03, 1993|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Staff Writer Staff writer Mark Hyman contributed to this article.

Months after the Orioles were put on the market, months after a Cincinnati group made its bid, four Baltimoreans say they're interested in buying. They've got the money, they say. And they've got something else: They're from here.

The hometown connection may not mean much to major league baseball or to Orioles owner Eli S. Jacobs' creditors or bankruptcy judges. But for some Baltimore sports fans, local ownership means everything.

This is a city in which some fans have spent nine years brooding over Robert Irsay's abduction of the Colts, a city whose Bullets now play in theWashington suburbs, a city whose citizens worried for years that Edward Bennett Williams had really bought the Orioles to carry them off to Washington.

"We suffer from the Irsay syndrome," says 3rd District City Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham.

"We've been blackmailed and burned," says Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat and longtime holder of Oriole season tickets. "It's justified paranoia."

A group of Baltimore investors, headed by lawyer Peter G. Angelos and Henry Knott Sr., says it will begin negotiations for the Orioles, but the effort comes very late. The Cincinnati group headed by William O. DeWitt Jr. has been talking for months with creditors of Mr. Jacobs, who last week was forced into a New York bankruptcy court.

Mr. Angelos and his colleagues have no experience running a ball team.

Mr. DeWitt comes from a baseball family with a fine reputation.

For some Baltimoreans, perhaps the more resilient, self-confident ones, the fact that the team may belong to an out-of-towner is not a big issue.

"It's not nearly as clear-cut as local versus out-of-town," says Robert Keller, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee. "I think what's important is that we have an owner who is part of the community fabric. What we want is ownership that cares about Baltimore, who is committed to Baltimore."

Exactly. Baltimore -- like someone who's been dating forever and is looking for something permanent -- most of all wants commitment.

There is no evidence that a local owner can manage a team more deftly or treat a fan more cordially than an owner from another state. And there's no guarantee that a Baltimorean would keep his team here if another city produced a seductive offer.

Even Gov. William Donald Schaefer, champion hometown booster who cautions he is not picking sides in the Orioles sale, says out-of-town owners can be great -- "if you get a good outside owner, like Mr. Williams. . . . Mr. Williams was a great man. Then hometown owner ship really isn't that important. It's just whether there is a commitment. And Mr. Williams had a strong commitment to the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland."

Gerald W. Scully, author of "The Business of Major League Baseball" and professor of management at the University of Texas at Dallas, stresses that local ownership isn't the key to eternal civic happiness. New York owners, he notes, moved the Giants and the Dodgers from New York to California.

"There's no evidence [home-town owners] are more willing to invest in improving the team and no evidence they'll stick it out if team is unsuccessful," Mr. Scully says.

Today, teams tend to be owned not by one wealthy man but by syndicates of investors who may come from around the country, Mr. Scully says.

And moving a team "has nothing to do with local ownership issues," he adds. "It has everything to do with perceiving where the grass is greener."

Still, in Baltimore's bruised memory, out-of-town owners are viewed with suspicion.

"We're suspicious," says Arbutus lawyer Salvatore Anello, "because it wasn't just that Irsay moved the team. It wasn't just a team. It was our past. It was our pride."

Baseball owners committed their own sins. Under Mr. Williams' ownership, the Orioles for a time dropped the word "Baltimore" from their logo.

"That hurt," says City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, "because we saw them through the hard times."

She remembers the days before 1979, when Baltimore's Jerold Hoffberger owned the team. "The very best of times," Mrs. Clarke says.

"You knew their hearts were here. You knew that the Orioles were Baltimore and Baltimore was the Orioles."

Hallowed as her memory of those days is, Mr. Hoffberger was the owner who sold the Orioles to Mr. Williams in 1979 when no local group came forward.

Mr. Williams, from a city that craved baseball, told Baltimore that he had no intention of moving the team as long as the city gave the Orioles adequate support. He may have meant to reassure. Baltimoreans heard it as a threat from a foreigner.

Mr. Hoffberger says Baltimore overreacted.

"You should not have worried about Edward Bennett Williams," he says. "He told you he wasn't going to leave and he never moved the team. He was an honest, nice man."

Yet, even Mr. Hoffberger concedes there's something to be said for having a Baltimore owner.

"The guy who lives out of town will think twice about [moving the team]. The guy who lives in town will think 110 times about it, because he doesn't want his kids to be knocked down on the street."

Sixth District Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi says local owners would be great.

"You trust people you know." But he says he could get to like a good owner from Cincinnati. "You have to work with that person. It's like a new friend. You have to develop a level of trust."

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