Even Angelos bemoans absurdly high salaries

December 20, 1998|By JOHN STEADMAN

Playing the escalating money game, as Peter Angelos does, isn't born of egotistical motivation. Owning the Orioles brings with it ongoing financial demands that few men or women would have the heart, stomach or wealth to confront or guarantee.

It may not have occurred to you, but he is certainly, far and away, the all-time champion spender, without a remote challenger, in the history of Baltimore sports. No one approaches him when it comes to paying for the product he puts on the field, even if he doesn't get value received.

And, if the end result is found wanting, he doesn't cry all over his morning newspaper, alibi the fate that was dealt him or even try to get his losses back. The two preceding owners of the Orioles weren't always investing top dollar and, in fact, were frequently accused of being "on the cheap."

In the five seasons Angelos has owned the Orioles after buying them for $173 million, the player payroll has orbited 250 percent, going from 17th to first, according to the Major League Baseball Players Relations Committee, which keeps such financial facts.

"Profit is not the driving force of this organization," Angelos says. "We are able to compete for players because of the supportive way the public has responded. I spend the equivalent to what our attendance allows."

He insists the Camden Yards park never could have been built from assets accrued by the club. In fact, under Angelos, there hasn't been any personal return on his $173 million investment -- to him or any others involved in the ownership group.

The pertinent question before the house is what does Angelos think of being involved in an industry where the economics are out of control, spreading with the intensity of a wildfire that to this point has been impossible to subdue. Maybe, because reasoning and logic aren't stifling the blaze, it'll have to burn itself out.

Angelos hopes measures can be taken to bring a sense of realism to the off-the-scale salaries being paid to the players. "Around 60 percent of the gross income goes to the players," he said. "There are, in my opinion, too many franchises in existence. Put another way, you could say too many dollars are chasing too few dollars."

The leader of the Orioles said the last expansion to Tampa Bay and Arizona should have been put on hold. "We didn't need to have expansion. In fact, baseball ought to consider reducing the number of franchises from 30 to 24 or even 20. That would put about 150 players, if you're disposing of six clubs, in a player pool to be selected and purchased by the remaining teams."

Such a move, as Angelos suggests, would be an unprecedented contraction of the baseball map and doesn't figure to happen. Some franchises are playing in facilities that need replacement. Yet, in certain instances, there are cities that can't afford to give them a new playpen or don't care to appease the struggling ballclubs.

"The concessions made to the players, going back 25 years, literally disarmed ownership," Angelos added. "The players' agents have whipsawed the owners. The financial aspects of player salaries have reached the level of absurdity.

"Pure and simple, the basic economics don't allow a team to sustain the salaries that are being paid. Right here is the most critical problem. We have to keep baseball America's greatest game and its most affordable. Football's average ticket is $45 or more, and baseball is around $17. Superstars draw huge contracts, and the other players get pulled along with the acceleration. The result is higher prices for fans at the ticket fTC booths."

Angelos said the $13 million-a-year salary for newly acquired Albert Belle includes three years of deferred payments, with $3 million annually being used for other player expenditures. He emphasized this was evidence of a player cooperating with management, even though making $10 million, with the rest to come later, is hardly denying him walking-around pocket money.

It was believed the Orioles' payroll might expand to over $80 million, but Angelos puts the figure between $70 million and $75 million. The Orioles took a financial hit in Angelos' first year (the strike-shortened schedule in 1994) and again with the disappointments of last season, but he said he wasn't complaining because to him "making money in baseball is secondary."

Here's one of baseball's free spenders, who has no difficulty paying his bills, concerned with the problems the runaway salaries have created. The Los Angeles Dodgers are blind to it. They lost a reported $30 million last year but signed a 33-year-old pitcher, Kevin Brown, who works only once every five days and in the last season of his contract will be 41 years old.

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