Inside Baseball: The Ownership Game


August 08, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace. -- So once more the wheel of fortune has come to a stop, and the Baltimore Orioles have a team of new celebrity owners, selected as though by a computer to match these dizzy times.

A plaintiff's lawyer whom asbestos fibers made rich. A novelist. A movie director. A tennis player. A clothing tycoon who sports a ponytail. A sports broadcaster. These all are advertised as having Maryland connections. Then there is the usual moneyed amalgam of real estate developers, lawyers and business persons, including a substantial bloc of the Cincinnati elite.

All that's needed to round out this cross-section of 1990s glitz is a brain surgeon, a country music singer, a former CIA agent and perhaps an African-American rocket scientist with a black belt in karate.

Even without those additions, however, the new ownership is quite a volatile collection of egos, all packed in together like popcorn in a stove-top popper. As the heat is gradually turned up, which shouldn't be long now, the popping can be expected to begin. Who will be the first to explode?

It will be something of a change for Baltimore to have its baseball team owned by a group that ought to be the cast of a movie. They ought to show the shareholders' sessions on JumboTron. Odds are, the ownership up in the giant skybox will be more entertaining than the employees down on the field.

That's not to say it'll be one bit more bizarre than what has gone before. Ever since Jerry Hoffberger, a Baltimorean and a perfectly normal human being, sold the team, the ownership has been the centerpiece of a continuing soap opera.

The last owner, Eli Jacobs, whose bankruptcy forced the recent auction sale of the team, was a New York oddball first class. He seemed to be a creepy combination of Daddy Warbucks, Richard Nixon and Howard Hughes. (The older generation will recognize those names.) He liked his privacy, which does not explain why he suddenly purchased a major league baseball team.

Mr. Jacobs was no doubt the least popular Orioles owner, but he certainly wasn't the worst. That distinction belongs to his predecessor, the late Edward Bennett Williams.

Mr. Williams, a Washington lawyer, was at home in the spotlight. In fact, he bought the team, it seemed clear, so that he could spend more time reading about himself in the papers. If he had been able to pull it off, he would have moved the Orioles to Washington. He was by all accounts a clever man, as well as a lucky one, and the sale of the Orioles greatly enriched his estate, but while he was alive he ran the team very badly.

Eli Jacobs is today considered a boob, and Ed Williams the ultimate sharpie. But anyone who follows baseball at all can see that Mr. Jacobs was much the better owner. The organization he has just sold was in far better shape from a baseball standpoint, as well as much more valuable, than the one he acquired from the Williams heirs.

Some Baltimoreans have suggested that the Orioles should be publicly owned, and actually it's a pity Governor Schaefer wasn't in New York bidding the taxpayers' money to buy the team. It would have been fun to see the state government at the controls, with state employees out there on the diamond.

The state could lead a move to expand the number of players, both on and off the field. Nine players might have been adequate once, the argument would go, but it isn't nearly enough the meet the demands of the 1990s. There should be at least 18 on the field at a time -- one at each of the nine traditional positions, and each of those with a deputy stationed nearby. Team rosters should be increased too.

If the state hired the players, it would make sure to do so on an equal-opportunity basis. It should be a proud principle that women, theelderly and persons unable to hit a curveball or throw from third to first should not be deprived of a chance to play on the Orioles.

Orioles players would be encouraged to join the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. They would be paid overtime if asked to play on Defenders Day or other recognized state holidays. And of course as a condition of their employment they would be required to maintain their legal residences within the state of Maryland.

But that's fanciful. The Orioles aren't going to be run by bureaucrats, they're going to be run by the cast of characters described above, and no doubt run brilliantly. Just because one pickup team of glitterati is screwing up Washington right now doesn't mean another can't have a wild success in Baltimore. We should all keep telling ourselves that.

Meanwhile, there are alternatives. Not long ago I had the chance to watch the Class AA Bowie Baysox play in Memorial Stadium. It was a magical, dreamlike experience. The field was green and velvet-smooth, the quality of play good if uneven, the 2,000 or so spectators scattered through the cavernous old place relaxed and happy.

Who owns the Baysox? Beats me. I wish I could say the same thing about the Birds.

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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