Lucchino positioned as franchise player

KEN ROSENTHAL

May 22, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Sports, like politics, makes for strange bedfellows. Governor Schaefer and the late Edward Bennett Williams were quite a pair. Tom Clancy and Boogie Weinglass are polar opposites. And suddenly Larry Lucchino is everybody's best friend.

The Orioles president angers nearly everyone he negotiates with, but he's uniquely positioned to become part of the club's next ownership, be it with a group led by Cincinnati investor Bill DeWitt or Baltimore attorney Peter Angelos.

Lucchino can't officially join either group while working for the Orioles, but he's believed to have an agreement with DeWitt to buy back a share of the team. No such deal exists with Angelos, but it's clear the local group also wants him to remain aboard.

"He's not a member of this group, and I don't know that he's a member of any group," Angelos said Wednesday night, "but I'm not suggesting that Larry is not a viable candidate to remain as a senior officer of the ballclub."

For DeWitt, Lucchino represents a chance to maintain continuity, a critical element for an out-of-town owner inheriting a highly successful operation. For Angelos, he offers the added appeal of a baseball insider who could help ensure the approval of major-league owners.

The groups led by New York art dealer Jeffrey Loria and the owners of Nobody Beats the Wiz have yet to contact Lucchino, but if they're serious, it's probably only a matter of time. Lucchino appears just as pivotal a figure as he was in December 1988, when Eli Jacobs bought the team from the Williams estate.

Lucchino, 47, was Williams' protege, a member of his law firm and then the Orioles board of directors. Williams' wife, Agnes, set him up to be part of the next ownership. Indeed, Jacobs almost certainly could not have bought the team any other way.

Since then, Lucchino has emerged as one of major-league baseball's brightest front-office stars, overseeing the Orioles' continued growth into a regional phenomenon and serving on four owners committees.

Judging from Peter Richmond's new book, "Ballpark," Jacobs wants to be remembered as the mastermind behind Camden Yards. But Lucchino envisioned a cozy, intimate facility with an asymmetrical playing surface and other nostalgic touches even before Jacobs bought the team.

For all these reasons, he'd be attractive to any new owner, but with Lucchino, you also get the rest of the package -- the hot-tempered executive who can be utterly charming one moment, bitterly condescending the next.

"Ballpark" offers several revealing glimpses of Lucchino's explosive personality. If Boogie Weinglass read the thing -- and the beauty of Boogie is, he won't -- he wouldn't be in such a rush to make Lucchino an honorary "Diner" guy.

According to the book, Lucchino walked into one of his first meetings with the ballpark architects and dumped a pile of brochures for Yugos on the table. "The Orioles don't drive Yugos," he said, "and we won't play in one."

The index lists four pages under the heading, "Lucchino, temper of." Bruce Hoffman, executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority, is quoted as saying: "Larry can't turn it off. He'll get so angry, he'll start shaking. You never know which Larry it'll be. He was a yo-yo."

Lucchino is described as a "brutal and tough" negotiator even by his friend, Jay Emmett. The book, however, contains numerous factual errors, and the Orioles and Maryland Stadium Authority issued a joint statement saying it "bears little resemblance to the design and construction process through which we lived."

The entire question of who deserves credit for the ballpark is rather childish, but it reflects the enormity of the egos involved. Lucchino, like Williams before him, is fiercely competitive. Which, as far as the Orioles are concerned, is not necessarily a bad thing.

The House That Eli Built is not Camden Yards, but a struggling team unable to draw on its vast profits in trying to build a contender. For all his bluster at contract time, Lucchino desperately wants to win. But, like the rest of the front office below him, his hands are tied.

It might not be any different under a new ownership that will be saddled with a $140 million purchase price and Cal Ripken's $30.5 million contract. But Jacobs no longer would be an excuse -- for Lucchino, for the front office, for the entire operation.

One goes, the other stays.

He's everybody's worst nightmare.

He's everybody's best friend.

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