Working man's Angelos forced to other side

August 03, 1994|By JOHN STEADMAN

Now, for maybe the first time, Peter Angelos is playing a different position. One of the country's most prominent labor attorneys has become a part of management. Not by design; it just happened. Baseball, in this case, has created a strange bedfellow.

It's all because of Angelos' buying into the game at a price tag of $173 million to own the Baltimore Orioles. Now, in classic irony, the hired hands he pays and cheers for are preparing to strike, which puts him on the opposite side of the field in a tug-of-war that pits players against owners. An odd role for Angelos.

He has always been motivated, in a professional and business sense, to dig in with both feet to push for the rights of the working man. He took on the steel industry in the notorious asbestos cases and won millions for his clients, at the same time adding to his own financial position.

Some observers to the Angelos' ascendancy are quick to say, via simplification, that he gained a reputation and vast remuneration for huge liability settlements from the so-called steel barons. This, though, is grossly unfair and, in a word, inaccurate. It's as if he's some Johnny Come Lately who cashed in on a situation he pursued with bloodthirsty fervor. Not so.

To accept such a contention is to underestimate an immense legal ability that was proven many times before the asbestos problems came to the attention of the nation. Angelos is two-way smart, from the law books he studied and his formative years spent on street corners as the son of a hard-working immigrant.

Angelos bought the Orioles not out of any passion for baseball but as a personal purpose of doing something for a city that has been good to him: Baltimore. So, via dint of circumstance, Peter Angelos winds up cast in an unfamiliar role -- aligned with management.

What is his reaction and how does he explain what for him is a contradictory alliance?

"Put it this way," he said. "My feelings have always been that the other side is entitled to a fair share. Let me emphasize if there's equitable compensation at the end of any dispute, it's an ideal accomplishment."

It was explained to Angelos the baseball association is not, in the true literal interpretation, a union, since the players have the comfort of unified support for a myriad of benefits yet cut their own deal on salaries. It's not that every catcher or left fielder is on a prescribed pay scale, as happens in factories and mills.

"That's a good point," he answered, "but there are many similarities to the two groups even though there aren't any union members earning what major-league players make. Baseball players are more like the actors' guild." In that regard, his explanation is astutely defined.

Angelos, in an extraordinarily successful career, has represented steelworkers, meat cutters and the building trade unions. The relationship, one he's proud of, dates to the early years of his law career. He's watching as the baseball battle lines are drawn. First the rhetoric, to be followed by the infighting.

A claim by ownership to justify a salary cap stresses that 19 of its franchises are operating in the red.

True or false? "That's right . . . I saw the numbers," admitted Angelos. Yes, but unusual tricks can be played with bookkeeping, such as loading family members on the payroll, granting large compensation for front-office officials plus travel arrangements, replete with chartered planes, limousines and assorted luxuries. Allowing the players to scrutinize the books is what Angelos wants as a start to resolve differences.

On another issue, apart from the strike threat, is a dispute with the black community that he's blatantly ignoring an arrangement that was written between former team president Larry Lucchino and the African American Task Force on Sports. It doesn't appear he's going to alter his stance.

"Some elements of the agreement have been fulfilled," Angelos commented. "To any charge of discrimination show me evidence and it'll be eliminated as soon as it's identified."

To a report suggesting Clayton Mitchell, retired speaker of the House of Delegates, would join the Orioles in a business capacity, he didn't deny it had been talked about. "Clayton, though, has other things to do. I doubt we could get him. He's strong and an able organizer. He showed he could run the House of Delegates effectively."

The scouting report on Angelos offered a year ago by Francis Valle, one of his former law professors, has been more than fulfilled. "He's one of the most capable attorneys I have known," said Valle. "As a fighter, he's not afraid of anyone or anything. Believe me, he'll take on the toughest and never blink an eye."

Now, after more than 40 years of representing labor, he's in for a new experience: Dealing with the union while a part of management.

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