Offering some insight into Angelos vs. Johnson

November 11, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

HERE'S WHAT I know about the Peter Angelos-Davey Johnson unpleasantness: It's the second game of the American League playoffs last month, Baltimore against Cleveland, and the Orioles are rolling. They've won the first game, they're leading convincingly on this second night, and those gathered in the Angelos luxury box behind home plate seem to be floating high above South Baltimore.

I'm standing at the back of the suite, chatting for a few minutes with the Orioles' owner, when out of the blue he says, "You know, there's something about Johnson that's going to come out after the season's over."

"Huh?" I ask with my customary incisiveness.

"I can't tell you what it's about now," says Angelos, "but it involves off-the-field ethics."

We now know his reference, but my point is this: Even when his ballclub was flying high and apparently headed for the World Series, even when the whole town was singing Johnson's praises, even when the cheers of rapturous fans rattled around his ballpark, and even as he was accepting premature congratulations from various politicians and business people gathered in his crowded suite that night, Peter Angelos was barely restraining his sense of infuriation.

Yes, Johnson's split from the Orioles can be traced to the fining of Roberto Alomar and the money earmarked for a charity that employs Susan Johnson, his wife. But it predates that, and postdates it, too.

In fact, go back to last year's spitting incident with umpire John Hirschbeck. Alomar says he spat only when Hirschbeck cursed him. Davey Johnson was there, close enough to hear everything. But Johnson remained muted about whatever it was he heard out there.

"A manager's got to stand up for his ballplayers," Angelos was still saying -- and visibly fuming about -- a year after the incident.

Others have called this naive. Johnson was being diplomatic, they say, knowing that umpires can be vindictive and knowing the heightened emotions around the spitting incident. But Angelos never let it go, and the Alomar fining -- and some subsequent events -- made it worse.

With the Orioles staggering down the regular season homestretch, Johnson uttered his remarks about expecting to be fired if the club didn't reach the World Series. The clear implication was: This man Angelos is crazy.

What no one yet understood was that this was a pre-emptive bid for public sympathy by Johnson, who knew about the conflict of interest when no one else did, and knew Angelos was furious. He was trying to put his boss on the defensive, knowing Angelos didn't want to create a distraction during a pennant run.

Then it got worse when Johnson said he wanted a contract extension. Again, Johnson knew what the public did not. Angelos thought it was another attempt to corner him.

Is this a defense of Angelos, who's catching flak from all corners these days? Yes, and no.

For my money, it was a mistake for both men not to work things out privately and keep this edgy partnership alive. It's reminiscent of a year ago, with the Jon Miller separation, when the two men never talked face to face before Miller split.

(For what it's worth, a year later: Yes, Angelos has a narrow concept of an announcer's duties. In place of the Babe Ruth of broadcasters, whom he deemed insufficiently homer-esque, he brought in a radio guy who has all the light touch of an AP bulletin, and a TV guy who sounds like a used-car commercial that never ends. But I still think Miller held cards he wasn't showing anybody -- that he secretly wanted to go home to California but didn't want to be seen as the bad guy leaving behind a community that loved him.)

In the Johnson case, Angelos is being accused of being overbearing and egotistical. He thinks he knows more about baseball than he really does. As if we're talking about particle physics or something. Yes, he insisted on keeping Bobby Bonilla and David Wells last year (and turned out to be right in both cases) but, yes, he embarrassed his baseball people by overruling their judgments.

Here's something else.

Angelos lives in a world bigger than baseball. On the night of the second game of the championship playoffs, he didn't even show up until the third inning. He was in Washington, at a dinner party. With the president, it was whispered around his luxury suite.

When he finally arrived, I asked him if this was true. Yeah, he said, and waved a hand dismissively.

"He didn't understand that baseball's more important than dinner with the president?" I asked, joking only slightly.

"Yeah," said Angelos, "he was surprised I was there. He asked me why I wasn't at the game, but I explained ... "

Never mind, for today's purposes, the explanation. There are other things in life, which transcend the playing field. In the Johnson case, it was integrity: not only the conflict of interest, but the attempts to force Angelos' hand before anybody knew about it.

It's possible to think Angelos was wrong -- that he should have bawled out Johnson, and then made peace with him -- and still understand his motivation.

Pub Date: 11/11/97

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