Star-crossed marriage: Johnson, Angelos A messy divorce is the inevitable result of a marriage between unbridled energy and an immovable object.

November 09, 1997|By C. FRASER SMITH

In the widely lamented divorce case known as Angelos vs. Johnson, one could blame ego alone. Professional sports team owners, managers and players have almost as much ego as they have money.

Yet, in this extraordinary split-up, the parties were separated by an ethical standard, of all things.

The matter of Peter G. Angelos, principal owner of the Baltimore Orioles, vs. David A. Johnson, 1997 American League Manager of the Year, had a messy public hearing in the court of fan opinion. Then last week, each party in his own way concluded the relationship had irreconcilable differences.

Johnson saw it coming - at least as early as mid-season and probably earlier. Like maybe his first day on the job.

Still, they seemed like such a nice couple. Scratch that. They seemed like an adult, professional couple that might find a way to work things out because both wanted something good for themselves and for the city of Baltimore: World Series championships. One had the money, the other had the baseball talent. Talk about team chemistry.

And, reconciliation might have been possible, it is said, if such-and-such had occurred sooner; or if so-and-so been more open and honest; or if the marriage had been as important as various other considerations, including ego.

Johnson says he wanted to stay in Baltimore, where he made about $750,000 a year. But he had other opportunities. Angelos and the Orioles thought they had bought a winner this year - and they no doubt think they can buy another one. If less cash had been sloshing about, they might have had to work harder at the relationship.

The official cause of the separation was said to be an ethical lapse by Johnson: He fined a star player, Roberto Alomar, for missing a game, and then he ordered that the money, $10,500, be sent to a charity of which Johnson's wife, Susan, is a paid employee.

Angelos was infuriated by the conflict of interest he saw in that decision. What was Johnson's real intent here? To punish the player or to fill the pockets of the charity?

Some whispered that ethics were only a veil for concealing the real reasons. The wreckage of divorce is often laid to annoyance. He won't stop squeezing the toothpaste from the center of the tube. He hides behind the paper during breakfast. He/she doesn't understand me.

Truth might be found in all these complaints. Yet each might serve simply to conceal the unhappy fact that Party A can't stand to be in the same room with Party B. Excuses deflect a bit from embarrassing questions: How did they get together in the first place? Why can't they work it out?

As painful as this has been, divorce can teach important lessons. If one is not so wrapped up in denial, the lessons can be useful.

Violation of an ethical standard as the reason for dismissing a sports figure should be examined more carefully, if only because such thing is done so rarely - probably never for a Manager of the Year whose latest team was in first place from the first day to the last day of the regular season. Johnson might be forgiven if he thought his record as a winner would protect him.

As hard as Angelos might be to work for, he has proved that considerations of this sort matter to him. The old steel workers' lawyer proved it to the other baseball owners when he refused to use replacement players during the 1994 strike. He proved it when he refused to hammer Alomar for spitting at an umpire because he thought the ump had provoked the player. And he proved it when he didn't rehire the Orioles' broadcaster, Jon Miller, provoking a tizzy among those who loved Miller's wit and sophisticated knowledge of the game - because Angelos wanted a more Baltimore-friendly man in the booth.

So, unless it was a matter of inelegantly squeezed toothpaste tubes, the owner should be heard. Ethical conduct is good. Angelos made us wonder how we would feel if university presidents actually insisted that coaches send their athletes to class.

The millionaire owner's unremitting outrage with Johnson's judgment draws quizzical responses from fans. How could he fire the winningest active manager in major league baseball? Don't the Bulls tolerate Dennis Rodman? Haven't they won five NBA championships?

One might observe that Johnson and his wife were engaging in the sort of community work that sports teams like to see on the public-relations level. But here's the problem: Athletes, their coaches and managers are not trained, or even expected, to observe the sometimes faint demarcation between good works and self-interest. The two can merge, in fact. Sports figures can get pretty isolated behind all the money, fame and winning - or the demand for winning.

Until recently, when athletes did drugs, assaulted their wives, broke into buildings or failed in class, they did it with impunity. More often, authorities are saying that's unacceptable.

Angelos surely intended to speak his mind to Johnson when they met for a discussion of the manager's future. But their dispute got into the newspapers and then out of control. Johnson suggested a divorce. Angelos went for it.

Fans, like the parting couple's friends and neighbors, were invited, or felt obliged, to take sides.

You know what a control freak Peter is, the Johnson friends say, eyebrows arching.

That Davey, such a passive-aggressive schemer, say the forces of Peter.

At least it didn't drag on. The final decree was immediate and, financially speaking, it was a no-fault sort of thing. They didn't have to think about selling the house or the car.

C. Fraser Smith is a political writer for The Sun and an avid sports fan.

Pub Date: 11/09/97

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