Angelos' heart still belongs to Highlandtown

April 24, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Peter Angelos is reclining comfortably in his luxury suite at Camden Yards, with a waitress named Michelle hovering nearby, a luscious dinner menu awaiting his choosing, and various men in expensive suits hoping to grab little increments of his time when third baseman Chris Sabo sprawls to interrupt a sharp ground ball on its way to left field.

"Chris Sabo," declares Angelos, jabbing one finger in the air and issuing perhaps the ultimate compliment in his repertoire, "is Highlandtown."

He should know. The new Orioles owner is worth uncounted millions of dollars, and he's spending it left and right, but his

heart never entirely leaves the blue-collar East Baltimore neighborhood where he grew up, where his personality was forged and where he still finds a frame of reference for the unpretentious, tough-minded qualities he treasures.

In other words, his current state being about as good as life gets, what with the Orioles generally winning and his family healthy and his law practice blossoming, he hasn't forgotten where it all started.

"I was a Highlandtowner," he was saying the other night, as the Orioles were edging the California Angels. "That tells it all. We took up for our rights. We might have provoked a few unfortunate fights, but we didn't pick on anybody.

"You know, you wouldn't fight to put a guy out of commission, it was just to get the job done. You'd hit hard, you'd make your point. And it was always strictly with fists. It'd be good to return to those days."

In ways that are important, he never exactly left. His style is still direct, no frills attached. It's his $173 million investment out there on the playing field, and he's charmed by it, but you sense there's a piece of Angelos chafing to get back to his law office, where there's serious action. He's a long way from Highlandtown, and yet he's not.

Always, he had pieces of different worlds tugging at him: There was the immigrant world of his parents vs. the streets of East Baltimore, and then there was the choice of life after Patterson High School. Most of his buddies headed for Sparrows Point. Angelos went to the old Eastern College of Commerce and Law.

"With my parents," Angelos says, "college was a given. You had to go to college, and then go as far as money and nerve and energy would take you. My father only went to the third grade. His father was killed in a construction accident, and so my father had to go to work. My parents wanted more for me."

He always felt his working-class roots were a plus. Those who came out of Harvard Law School didn't understand the streets, hadn't come out of the same ethnic melting pot. They didn't understand people the way he did. When he emerged from night school, he threw himself into workmen's compensation cases, criminal defense, plus representation for Local 2610 of the Steelworkers Union.

In 1974, they started seeing hundreds of guys from Bethlehem Steel with the same problem: They'd been exposed to asbestos, and they were dying. The union's leadership asked him to represent about 400 of these men. During the next 20 years, 400 became 10,000 cases, people from steel mills, from shipyards, what Angelos calls an immense tragedy.

"The manufacturers knew," he says softly. "For 40 years they knew this stuff was killing people, and they concealed it, and hundreds of thousands of people didn't know the deadly hazard they were facing."

On the field, the Orioles were nursing a 4-3 lead now, but Angelos seemed momentarily oblivious. On a night of on-field tension, he seemed always to have a sense of perspective: Games are fun. They're not the stuff of life and death.

"I've seen some terrible suffering," he said. His voice wasn't much louder than a whisper. "Too many people. A national calamity."

He has 65 attorneys and 135 backup people working on various cases. It makes his operation the largest plaintiffs' office in the country. And it's made Angelos wealthy beyond imagining.

When he bought the Orioles at auction, he remembers, "I didn't care how high the bidding went. In my mind, I knew I would go higher. I mean, I was thinking, 'When is this SOB gonna give it up?' But until he did, I wasn't leaving."

After Edward Bennett Williams' threats, after Eli Jacobs' icy distance, Angelos is, among other things, a huge relief to Baltimoreans: How nice, finally, to have somebody own the club who understands the town.

Here's one example: This is Tuesday night, the night Wild Bill Hagy makes his unexpected return to public life. In Angelos' suite, the first response is puzzlement: What's that roar sweeping the right field seats? Suddenly, people around Angelos are yelling, "Wild Bill. It's Wild Bill."

No last names are necessary. Angelos' face lights with sheer joy. He knows the truth: His ballpark is filled every night, but it lacks the electricity of Memorial Stadium. Wild Bill and wild beer have been muted by a crowd that includes too many D.C. yuppies bearing wine spritzers and Wall Street Journals. There's not xTC enough buzz in the place.

"Do you see that?" Angelos says. "Do you see that?"

He's saying this to Roland Hemond, the general manager, who nods his head.

"I've gotta talk to him," Angelos says. "I will talk to him. Wild Bill, how do you like that? He's got the whole place buzzing."

There's a sense that Eli Jacobs might have found Wild Bill an interloper, a blight on his fancy new digs. Angelos knows differently. He understands not only baseball, but Baltimore. He's happy to have all the D.C. yuppies loving his ballclub, but his heart belongs to a state of mind called Highlandtown.

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