Angelos still hasn't learned tough lesson of ownership

October 12, 1999|By Michael Olesker

THE LAST time I spoke with Peter G. Angelos, he let me have it, but good. It was two weeks into the 1999 baseball season, and it had taken his Orioles 12 games to win three. My response was to write a newspaper column of gentle (I thought) ridicule. His response was to call me a name.

"Caterwauling twit" was the actual phrase. He called me this in a fax he sent me the day after the column appeared in The Sun. Not one to miss an opportunity to whine defensively on my own behalf, I immediately telephoned his law office.

"Who is this?" Angelos asked.

"The caterwauling twit," I said.

"I knew that would get you," he laughed heartily.

"I may caterwaul," I declared, "but I'm no twit."

Then we started hollering at each other, sometimes accompanied by laughter but sometimes, unmistakably, the sound that came from Angelos was anger and sometimes pure hurt.

He was under the gun again. Twelve games into a 162-game season, the radio talk-show callers were blaming him for the Orioles' on-field assemblage, and urging him to fire the manager, Ray Miller. The newspaper sports columnists were saying the same. Now there was this caterwauling from me, just two weeks into the new season, in a column that opened, "Things to do while waiting for the Orioles' season to be over" when it had barely begun.

Some of it, Angelos took personally. Some of it got him simply because it was part of the barrage he felt, not only so early in this new season but for all the years since he had bought the Orioles. He had imagined he would be cherished as their savior and instead found himself criticized for heavy-handed intrusiveness while spending $80 million each summer in pursuit of a pennant.

"What do they want from me?" he asked plaintively at one point. "Do they want Eli Jacobs back? Is that what they want?"

Jacobs was the owner who preceded Angelos, and helped transform what had once been one of baseball's premiere franchises into a sad pantomime. Floundering in an ocean of personal debt, Jacobs pinched pennies with the Orioles while salaries all around baseball were going ballistic.

But money was only part of it. Before Jacobs, there was Edward Bennett Williams. The great Washington attorney was there for the Orioles' last World Series victory, but he'dd committed some dreadful acts. He transformed a team that had traditionally built from within, nurturing its kids on the farm, and instead stocked the club with big-name has-beens.

And he'd threatened to move the team out of Baltimore.

When Peter Angelos invested his millions, he was not only buying the Orioles but ensuring they would remain Baltimore's. They would not become the Colts, taken from us in the middle of the night. Angelos is the original hometown guy, raised in hardscrabble East Baltimore, friend of working people, representative of steel workers and others laid low by asbestos. He understands the town. He's one of us. Thus, he was the insurance policy that the Orioles were ours forever.

That's the great irony about Angelos today: Instead of hometown hero, he's become a figure of derision. He spends millions, and believes this entitles him to a say in his own business, and he cannot understand why he's criticized for this.

Has he made mistakes? Big ones, colossal ones: Jon Miller and Davey Johnson come immediately to mind, but they're only symptomatic of an inability to let his baseball people do their jobs. In his defense, Angelos has overreached partly because he understands the passion Baltimore has for baseball, and the hunger we have around here for a winner. He wants to feed that hunger; he's a bleeder.

But owning a baseball team isn't the same as running a law practice. For one thing, astonishingly, the egos are much bigger. Pat Gillick, the ex-general manager, went into endless pout when he discovered his power wasn't unlimited. Albert Belle, Mr. Congeniality, is offended that he's expected to run all the way to first base for $13 million a year. And Peter Angelos, successful attorney, imagines that running a baseball team is a piece of cake compared with the intricacies of the law.

In baseball, everybody's got a different specialty. It ain't brain surgery, but it is special. Some spend their lives learning all its nuances, the way others practice for their bar exams.

And Angelos, the ultimate hands-on guy who knows the position of every paper clip in his law office, hasn't learned the toughest lesson for those who have great power: When you hire people, you assume they have skills of their own. You have to trust that they will use them wisely.

When you don't, the operation stumbles and then crashes. The caterwauling commences, and the man getting most of the flak is the guy pulling all the strings -- who helped preserve the Orioles for his hometown, but now has to let others make it thrive.

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