Glendening must intervene in sports wars

November 30, 1997|By Barry Rascovar

LIKE IT OR NOT, it's time for Parris Glendening to play sports referee. He's warmed-up for the assignment, having spent much of last month wearing an Orioles jacket at public appearances.

Indeed, the Orioles constitute half the problem. The feud between team owner Peter Angelos and the Maryland Stadium Authority has gotten downright nasty. But then so has the dispute within the racing community over splitting simulcast revenues.

Both controversies hurt the state. Both cry out for direct involvement by the governor. Yet to date, he has carefully stayed out of the cross-fire.

Angelos miffed

In the baseball war, Mr. Angelos is seething. He feels the stadium authority has ignored him, slighted him and undermined his business -- first, by taking away parking spaces (to build a football stadium) and second by proposing an entertainment center in the parking lot.

He has returned the insult by threatening stadium authority officials, obstructing their every move and talking of court action if his demands aren't met.

Things have gotten so bad Mr. Angelos won't return stadium authority officials' phone calls. Meanwhile, stadium authority officials have taken his tirades personally, which doesn't help matters.

A third party is needed to patch things up. The stadium authority's entertainment center holds great potential -- if it is done right, which means in conjunction with the Orioles. And both sides have to agree on a plan to expand parking. That won't happen until someone intervenes: the governor.

The Camden Yards clash could find its way into next year's gubernatorial election. Mr. Angelos has deep political pockets. He can tap his vast network to raise big sums for a Glendening foe. Or he could remain neutral, given the proper incentives. It depends on how Mr. Glendening handles matters.

At a minimum, he ought to massage Mr. Angelos' considerable ego with some power breakfasts at the Governor's Mansion. Picking up the phone and gabbing with the mega-millionaire would help, too. And finding a new stadium authority chairman next year when John A. Moag's term expires would please Mr. Angelos.

Meanwhile, on the tracks, Rosecroft Raceway harness track in Prince George's County is playing hardball to force concessions from thoroughbred interests on simulcast profit-sharing. This position is bolstered by the fact that Rosecroft's lead lawyers are longtime Glendening associates, John Davey and John McDonough.

Yet driving thoroughbred tracks into financial straits brings Maryland a step closer to slot machines at the tracks -- something Mr. Glendening says he abhors.

The governor can't let racing's weak link -- the harness tracks -- dictate terms. Not when most of the 17,000 racing-related jobs in Maryland are tied to the well-being of thoroughbred racing.

Ironically, the gap between the parties isn't great. Thoroughbred horsemen and Joe De Francis, majority owner of Pimlico and Laurel Park, agreed last week to arbitrate differences. But the harness interests won't budge.

That is a dangerous position. Right now, Rosecroft is sitting on a surplus from the sale of Ocean Downs to the Bally's casino company. The track's expenses are minimal this time of year, too. But come next spring, Rosecroft will be hurting without a simulcast agreement.

The longer this situation drags on, the angrier thoroughbred interests will get at the governor. A huge amount of campaign donations could wind up flowing to Mr. Glendening's foes.

Additionally, legislative leaders want peace in the racing community. If the harness tracks refuse to arbitrate, they may find themselves cut out of any financial aid package crafted by the General Assembly to boost race track purses. Their lawyers' close ties to Mr. Glendening won't mean a thing at that point.

Showing leadership on the Camden Yards squabble and racing imbroglio means more than issuing a statement. It means learning the intricacies of the disputes and using the prestige of the governor's office to force feuding parties to negotiate in good faith. It may mean putting pressure on his associates to be reasonable.

Maryland has much to gain if these sports struggles are brought to a winning conclusion; the governor has much to lose if these debilitating quarrels persist.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 11/30/97

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