Year later, Angelos driven to excel but on road all his own

August 02, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

When Peter Angelos says that the baseball owners need to open their books, that sharing revenue is a short-term solution, that his fellow owners basically are whining instead of seeking solutions, he is so on the money that he shames the 27 other owners. Not that they have any shame.

Yet, when he demands that Leo Gomez play third base every day, he is making a mistake.

When he opens his wallet and attempts to transform the Orioles into a pennant winner with a blizzard of free-agent signings, making the good-faith effort that the prior owner wouldn't, he is a savior.

Yet, he is wrong to complain publicly about his manager, letting the man dangle when a change is so clearly going to be made.

And while there is nothing wrong with involving his sons in the team's business, allowing such amateurs to have more than a passing say in baseball personnel decisions is a classic mistake.

Welcome to the present and future of the Orioles, as brought to you by Angelos. It's not going to be boring, folks.

In the year since Angelos bought the team in a New York bankruptcy court -- the anniversary is tomorrow -- we have often seen him as a shrewd, charismatic owner with many of the proper instincts. His predecessor, Eli Jacobs, was concerned more about profits than wins. Angelos is a 180-degree opposite. His franchise isn't cynical. His desire to win is obvious. For that, the entire city owes him thanks.

Yet, with that desire we get the rest of the package: an owner who wants control of everything, or very nearly. Which is an extremely dangerous thing.

In baseball, the fewer decisions the owner makes, the better off the franchise. Baseball decisions are meant to be made by professionals with a hardened eye for talent, people who understand the slow pace and possess the requisite patience. The owner, in most cases (including this one), is none of the above.

That is not to say that a fan/owner such as Angelos can't make right calls. We're talking about baseball here, not neurosurgery. It isn't that complicated. Angelos' record in his rookie year is pretty impressive. He wanted Rafael Palmeiro. He wanted Lee Smith. He demanded that Gomez not be released in spring training.

But, as always, the result of such opinionated, heavy-handed ownership is a front office in disarray. The baseball people -- Roland Hemond, Frank Robinson and Doug Melvin -- have limited power with Angelos calling the shots. And now that Angelos' twenty-something sons have their father's ear, you're looking at a team that is the result of a half-dozen different visions.

A team that is playing like the result of a half-dozen different visions, by the way.

It's a dangerous situation. This game makes a habit of swallowing up successful business people who are convinced they can apply the principles that made them rich and win a World Series. The game looks so simple, right? These baseball people are kind of simple themselves, right? If Edward Bennett Williams were alive today, he would tell you: Don't believe it for a second.

Angelos built a successful law practice by making many decisions himself. But he just can't run a baseball team the same controlling way. Take his decision to force manager Johnny Oates to play Gomez. (Oates called it "an organizational decision," which is manager-ese for "Not me, pal.") It's Steinbrennerism, pure and simple.

Angelos' logic was not necessarily wrong, understand. Oates has never cared much for Gomez's game, but Gomez is more useful than Oates sees him. And more useful than an aging, sore-backed Chris Sabo.

But it's the principle that matters here. The owner owns. The manager manages. If the manager doesn't get to decide who plays, he has neither control nor any credibility in the clubhouse. His players aren't going to believe in him.

Angelos was right this time, but what about next time? What if he demands a lineup move that makes sense on paper but not on the field? He shouldn't make such decisions, even if he did pay a fortune to own the team. It's a blueprint for failure.

Of course, maybe Angelos is the rare owner who can meddle and make things work. He certainly succeeds at making more sense on the labor issue than any other owner. He appears ready to go to considerable lengths to win. Who can say that he can't pull it off?

In any case, we're going to find out, that's for sure. The Orioles are in the hands of a smart owner who wants desperately to win, which is a good thing, but plans on making the big calls himself, which is a dangerous thing. The future is becoming clearer and clearer now. He'll get his own manager and GM in here one of these days, but you can be sure they won't be strong-willed, independent types. There's only room for one of those.

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