Woes of the O's and Peter's principles

November 09, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- Let's see, wasn't someone just saying that Peter Angelos should run for governor?

On the face of it, it wasn't such a bad idea. Politics, like professional sports management, is a magnet for ego-driven people with authoritarian personalities. If, in addition to ambition, they have money and ruthlessness and a little bit of luck, they can sometimes make it into the higher levels of the game.

In control

Baltimore's Mr. Angelos has those assets, and more besides. The Orioles owner, unlike most of the people who control big-time sports franchises, is a resolutely local person. His personal pugnacity and independence are appealing, although less so today than when he was one of life's underdogs. Now that he's rich, having struck the mother lode as a plaintiffs' lawyer suing asbestos companies, what used to look like feisty independence more closely resembles arrogance.

Anyway, on the basis of his most recent performance in the ongoing Orioles circus, his positive qualities don't come close to outweighing his liabilities. In his embarrassing scuffle with Davey Johnson, his team's field manager, he lost his dignity, his temper, and a large chunk of his reputation for good business sense. If Parris Glendening had ever thought of Peter Angelos as a potential political rival, it isn't likely that he does any more.

Davey Johnson, by contrast, walked away from the dustup with Mr. Angelos the clear winner. He has a reputation as a tough customer himself, but this time he behaved not only like an adult, but also like a courteous and civilized one. His was a classy departure, and it made his boss' hissy fit seem even more pathetic.

All Mr. Johnson lost in the encounter was a job -- one he was extremely good at, but which was quite clearly no longer worth the hassle. Even if he hadn't been chosen the American League's Manager of the Year on the day he had submitted the resignation Mr. Angelos wanted, he would still be highly employable.

Now there is the entertaining prospect that he will return to Camden Yards next year as the manager of another American League team, and will be cheered when he does so by Baltimore's long-suffering fans. DA-VEY! DA-VEY! DA-VEY! Mr. Angelos, whose team of expensive veterans is teetering on the brink of a long and slippery slope, may not like that very much.

A black eye

As much of the sports commentary following the Johnson resignation noted, Mr. Angelos seems to want a manager who is both respected by the players and subservient to the owner. And it apparently hasn't occurred to him that these qualities are mutually exclusive.

Neither does it seem to have registered that he's damaged the organizational reputation of the Baltimore Orioles in a way that won't be easy to repair. For years, in losing seasons as well as winning ones, the Baltimore organization was known as a good place for players. It taught the fundamentals thoroughly, recognized talent, and gave players with ability every chance to achieve a major-league career -- if not with the Orioles, then someplace else.

To the great pride of Baltimore fans, the soundness of the organization made the Orioles consistently competitive against much richer teams. Even when home-grown stars became free agents and departed for more money elsewhere, the organization was able to replace them.

That began to change long before Mr. Angelos arrived, of course. The concept of management by checkbook was embraced by Edward Bennett Williams when he owned the team. His successor Eli Jacobs, who had serious money problems, didn't seem all that interested either in winning now or in building for tomorrow. But under both owners, Baltimore was still known as a good place to play.

Under Peter Angelos, there was for a while the promise that it would become an even better place, with a serious commitment to quality. The past two seasons, under Davey Johnson, have been winning ones. But when a Manager of the Year is forced to resign because he and the owner can't get along, however, doubts arise.

Rough times

Possibly this is just one of those rough times all teams, and all organizations, go through. It might be just a bump in the road, nothing to get alarmed about. Maybe the 1998 Orioles will build on the success of this year's team and, under a new manager hand-picked by Mr. Angelos, go on to the American League pennant. As winter descends, it's reassuring to think so.

In politics, the voters often put up with bizarre behavior on the part of their leaders as long as the government seems to be running all right. If they lose confidence, though, they withdraw their support in a hurry. The owners of baseball teams don't get voted out of office, which is lucky for Peter Angelos, but the public can find ways to communicate its displeasure with them, too.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 11/09/97

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