Out-of-Towners Run Everything These Days

July 20, 1995|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- Total attendance at major league baseball games is down sharply since the recent strike. Some think it may never recover. Attendance at Orioles games is down too, but not as much. What accounts for the difference?

Is it because Baltimore's baseball company runs its business better than baseball companies in other cities? Because Orioles fans are just more tolerant of all the ways that major league baseball has found to irritate its customers? Or, perhaps, because Baltimore is always one of the last places to get the word about what's in and what's out? No one knows, although theories abound.

It can't have much to do with the performance of the team on the field, which has been fairly ordinary this year. The much-praised Camden Yards stadium, still a novelty, probably deserves some credit. But another important reason is the Orioles' local ownership.

Most major sports franchises today are operated by rich egomaniacs with no serious connection or commitment to the city their team purports to represent. If they're not favored and flattered sufficiently -- and they seldom think they are -- they start shopping for better offers. Inevitably, this reduces support for the team even more, and so they start shopping even harder.

Baltimoreans have had their fill of this behavior over two decades. First there was Robert Irsay of Skokie, Illinois, making off with the Colts. Then Edward Bennett Williams of Washington and Eli Jacobs of New York, consecutively, got their hands on the Orioles. Although the team stayed in Baltimore, neither owner cared much for the city, and it showed.

The current owner, Peter Angelos, may not win any prizes for affability, but he's a resolutely local guy. This encourages local support of his baseball team even as labor unrest and unspectacular play on the field discourage it. Having an identifiable local owner still has tremendous symbolic importance.

This has traditionally been true for many businesses, not just sports teams. But unfortunately, as local ownership becomes ever more unusual in an era of endless corporate consolidation, its value is probably waning. Peter Angelos may be the best thing the Orioles have going for them, but the time may be almost here when having a local owner will be more a curiosity than an asset.

The newspaper business offers baseball a peek at the future.

When Times Mirror Co. bought The Sun in 1986, bringing to an end 149 years of local ownership, the reaction in Baltimore was remarkably restrained. There were some mild expressions of disappointment, but as most regular readers of newspapers knew what had been going on nationally in the media business, the $600 million sale came as no great surprise. By 1986, most of the daily newspapers in the nation had been incorporated into chains, and for The Sun it had seemed only a matter of time until the right offer came along. The families -- Abells, Blacks, Garretts, Whites -- that had shared control of the paper had been growing less directly involved, and therefore presumably more interested in cashing out.

Some in Baltimore saw, or said they saw, a positive side to the purchase. Times Mirror published other newspapers around the country which were well regarded. With its great resources and experience it would perhaps improve The Sun. And its impersonal corporate management would presumably be free of those irritating little human biases and animosities that always seem to be present when a local institution is run by local people.

Well, it's nine years later now, and most of the readers of The Sun I talk to regularly would be hard pressed to say if it's any better than it used to be, or any worse. (Readers of The Evening Sun are perhaps another matter.) If the little biases are gone, the people who write angry letters to the editor haven't noticed. But even so, the community's connection to the paper has been subtly altered.

The Wall Street Journal, in a major article published this week on Times Mirror in the wake of the company's decision to close its money-losing New York City edition of Newsday, says there is speculation that the company may soon be selling many of its assets, even including The Sun and its other Eastern newspapers. Years ago, such a report would have created quite a buzz in Maryland.

Not today. Few people remember who owns the paper now, and fewer care. If it were to be sold again, it wouldn't attract much more attention this time around than the sale of a television station, a car dealership or a bank. People don't take their newspapers as personally as they once did, and the end of local ownership is one reason why.

The Orioles, and major league baseball by extension, are fortunate they still have a Peter Angelos. But he's probably a dinosaur. One day we'll have no more idea who owns our ball team than who owns our newspaper, or our insurance company -- and our apathy will show it.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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