Price isn't right, but reasoning is

November 13, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

This stinks, OK? There's no denying it, no sugar-coating it, no getting around it. Raising ticket prices for a season that might not be played -- after a season that was not completed -- borders on consumer fraud.

The problem is, the Orioles face no other choice. Not if they're to recoup $15 million in strike-related losses. And not if fans expect owner Peter Angelos to field a competitive team.

For all Angelos' faults, he's unassailable on two fronts -- his commitment to winning, and his position on the strike. If Eli Jacobs pulled this stunt, we'd tear him to pieces. But Angelos isn't trying to rob anyone blind.

No, he's only trying to survive. The Orioles might be a cash cow, but Angelos and his investors have yet to milk it. Even with an additional $5 million in ticket revenue, they won't profit any time soon.

Angelos paid $173 million to return the team to local ownership, spent $43.75 million on free agents, then absorbed this $15 million hit. No one, but no one, has taken a worse beating from the strike.

And yet, the Orioles are still planning to spend, still pursuing free-agent pitchers, still trying to improve. Could they do it without raising ticket prices? Only under Ellen Sauerbrey math.

Angelos, remember, held the line on ticket prices last season, an act of good faith. It was no secret then that an increase was likely for 1995. The strike did nothing to alter that timetable. In fact, it only made the increase more urgent.

Let's say Angelos bit the bullet, and waited one more year. The loss of $5 million probably would have come out of the payroll, and the fans would have screamed, anyway. Angelos couldn't win -- but at least this way, maybe the Orioles can compete.

Sorry, but the idea isn't to put the owner out of business. You want Bill Swift? You want Danny Jackson? You want the Orioles to retain Ben McDonald and Chris Hoiles if they become restricted free agents under the owners' new economic system?

This is the price.

Yes, it's outrageous that fans in some of the best seats -- the ones who have been season-ticket holders longest -- will pay $20 instead of $15 without knowing if there will be major-league baseball in 1995.

Still, does anyone seriously think Angelos, a veteran labor attorney, will field a team of scabs? He disdains the idea of replacement players as much as the rest of us. Indeed, he'd sooner nuke Camden Yards.

This mess is not of his making. Angelos opposes union-busting, opposes small-market subsidies, opposes a long-term salary cap. He has defied the owners at nearly every turn, and now he's alienated from them.

Philadelphia owner Bill Giles dismissed his conduct as "a very good thing for his own PR," but he obviously doesn't know Angelos. Was the firing of Johnny Oates a good thing for PR? Was the hiring of Syd Thrift?

Angelos says what he wants, does what he wants, and if it causes trouble, so be it. The fact is, he's the one owner in sync with the fans on strike-related issues. He might be harsh on his employees, but not his customers.

Jacobs was just the opposite -- he raised ticket prices three times in his last four years as owner, and each increase was more disgraceful than the last. Not only did Jacobs hold down the payroll, but he also collected a $1.3 million management fee.

Angelos collects nothing. He might keep raising prices, simply by adhering to the principles of supply and demand. But no question, the timing of this bothers him. The Orioles purchased a full-page ad in today's Sun to explain their position.

It doesn't matter that San Francisco is holding the line, or that Kansas City is reducing general-admission seats by $1. Likewise, it doesn't matter that Colorado is raising prices as it moves into a new ballpark. Each situation is different.

In New York, George Steinbrenner was greeted by headlines of "Gorge-Us George" when he raised the Yankees' top ticket from $17 to $25. Steinbrenner's increase affected only 7 percent of his ticket buyers, while Angelos' affects more than 85 percent.

Still, Steinbrenner deserved it.

For one thing, he's talking about cutting the Yankees' payroll by $10 million. Also, he's using the price hike as a way to point out the lack of revenue generated by Yankee Stadium, the better to build his case for moving to New Jersey.

Angelos had no ulterior motives. Angelos warned us this was coming. The increase of ticket prices with the game in such a precarious state is unfair, unwarranted and unreasonable. But you propose a better solution.

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