Orioles rewarded Jacobs on the field, on the books

August 01, 1993|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,Staff Writer

Eli S. Jacobs did what came naturally, what he'd done so many times during the go-go 1980s when he'd been busy buying companies that built everything from computer parts to chil- dren's toys.

He saw a good deal, and he grabbed it.

The business was the Orioles -- Baltimore's year-round obsession and chief source of civic pride. Owning a baseball team appealed to Mr. Jacobs, who grew up outside Boston rooting for the Red Sox. But as always with the hard-charging financier, the real lure seemed to be the investment.

Mr. Jacobs paid $70 million for the Orioles, then the second-highest price ever paid for a baseball franchise, when he bought it from the family of the late Washington lawyer Edward Bennett Williams in December 1988. When the team's next owners are selected tomorrow in a bankruptcy court in New York, the price almost certainly will exceed $150 million.

In baseball and business, the numbers count. And during the nearly five years Mr. Jacobs has owned them, the Orioles have been nothing short of impressive. Last year, the Orioles racked up a record operating profit of about $28 million, the highest in the major leagues, according to for- mer Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent.

The team hasn't done badly in the standings either. Although the Orioles failed to win a title under Mr. Jacobs, they managed more victories than losses in two of the first four years he owned the club, and they appear headed for a finish near the top of the American League East this season.

"If you look back, we've been in three pennant races, broken attendance records in four out of five years," says Orioles President Larry Lucchino. "We helped to build the best and most talked-about ballpark in America, and I think we have established ourselves as a solidly prosperous franchise. That's only part of the record, but a part Eli Jacobs can be proud of."

"He leaves a good legacy in the sense he ran the club very well," says Mr. Vincent, a friend of the Orioles owner. "He probably ran it very much as a businessman. It operated within fiscal limits."

Mr. Jacobs clearly benefited from good timing. He bought the team when the franchise had descended to its lowest point -- a 21-game losing streak -- and presided over a transformation on and off the field that was begun by his predecessor.

The centerpiece of the team's renewal is the Camden Yards stadium, an architectural showpiece with cash-generating amenities such as plush skyboxes and gourmet restaurants, which was largely responsible for quadrupling the team's operating profit last year. Fans love the park and have turned out in record numbers.

Mr. Jacobs, 55, brought a far different style to the owner's box from Mr. Williams'. The Washington lawyer was a passionate fan who exulted in the team's winning years and agonized over its failures. His feelings about the team's play were easy to gauge; he showed them by shouting obscenities from the owner's box. He was so driven to win that he went on impulsive shopping sprees for free agents, signing three during one particularly expensive off-season.

Mr. Jacobs, though he clearly appreciated baseball, seemed to reserve most of his passion for the business of the Orioles. He studied the team's books closely, pored over stadium seating charts and immersed himself in the planning of Camden Yards.

Arriving in Baltimore, Mr. Jacobs was a mysterious, wealthy New York investor who pledged to do well by Orioles fans. He said his ownership would be a "partnership among all of us" and that he wasn't getting into baseball expecting to get out with quick profit. "I hope one day my grandchildren own my businesses," Mr. Jacobs said then. But as his financial empire unraveled, creditors clamored for him to sell the Orioles, his primary asset.

Nearly five years later, Mr. Jacobs leaves this town with a reputation for building a thriving business at Camden Yards. His success gained him the admiration of some but drew the scorn of fans who complained bitterly about three ticket-price increases in five years and groused about trades the Orioles never made.

Mr. Jacobs remains a remote, reclusive figure whose behind-the-scenes role in running the Orioles often left him invisible to Baltimoreans. He never seemed comfortable with the celebrity of owning a baseball team. He almost never attended Orioles news conferences to announce major developments, and delegated the job of team spokesman almost totally to Mr. Lucchino.

Asked to describe his tenure as owner for this article, he declined to speak to a reporter. But a spokesman for Mr. Jacobs said that "he enjoyed watching the team win" and that the owner's chief accomplishment with the team was "his role in shaping and designing the new Orioles ballpark."

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