Team may help O's to win again

A D.C.

June 12, 2000|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Peter Angelos would say that a team in the D.C. area would be the worst thing that could happen to the Orioles. It certainly would be the worst thing for Angelos as owner and maybe even for the franchise's long-term health.

But that's only the economic argument.

The competitive argument is no longer as convincing.

Angelos would say that the two are one and the same, that the Orioles' foothold in D.C. enables them to operate as a large-market team and not the small-market team they were in the past.

But, as the past three seasons have shown, spending doesn't always translate to winning.

And if the Orioles are to win again, a little competition might not hurt.

A little competition might force Angelos to fight for his customers. A little competition might force him to adjust his heavy-handed management style. A little competition might force him to adopt the model practiced by more successful teams.

Angelos is under no such pressure with the sheep continuing to flock to the Camden meadow. The Orioles' $80 million payroll is testimony to his desire to win. But his mismanagement has left a once-proud franchise reeling.

If the Montreal Expos moved to Northern Virginia, Angelos would be in danger of not only losing the 20 to 25 percent of his fan base from the D.C. area, but also disenchanted Baltimore-area fans who would prefer to watch a more dynamic team.

The Expos certainly would fit that description.

But they aren't going anywhere yet.

Oh, the Expos are in their usual turmoil, with attendance dwindling, owners squabbling and stadium financing perilous. They appear to meet every condition that Major League Baseball requires for a franchise to move. But no team has relocated since the Washington Senators left for Texas in 1971, and commissioner Bud Selig always errs on the side of caution.

Then again, if Montreal doesn't care about the team, so why should MLB?

Maybe Selig will give the Expos one more year to sort out their problems. But lead investor Jeffrey Loria - the New York art dealer who was outbid by Angelos in the 1993 bankruptcy auction for the Orioles - probably could find more agreeable partners and fans in Washington, the nation's seventh-largest television market.

Frankly, Les Expos shouldn't be Selig's greatest concern.

His greatest concern should be Messr. Angelos.

For one thing, Angelos' argument holds merit - the Orioles almost certainly would be hurt by a team that likely would play in D.C.'s RFK Stadium for two years, then a new stadium in Northern Virginia.

For another, Angelos almost certainly would file suit against MLB, presumably on the grounds that he bought the Orioles with the understanding that he would control the D.C. area.

Angelos buried the commissioner's office with paperwork during the Frank Wren arbitration. But that was a mere dusting compared to the blizzard that would ensue if a team attempted to invade his territory.

Not that Angelos would necessarily prevail.

His newfound clout in Washington as a leading Democratic contributor could help him keep a team out of Northern Virginia - but that influence could be diminished if Republican George W. Bush, former owner of the Texas Rangers, is elected president.

Heck, even if MLB sided with Angelos and attempted to block a relocation, a Washington ownership group could challenge the sport's antitrust exemption and force the owners to back down.

In the late 1980s, Orioles management contended Baltimore and Washington eventually could support two teams, but the day had not yet come.

Is the Baltimore-Washington area now comparable to New York, where two teams thrive?

Or is it more like the Bay area, where generally only one team succeeds?

If the Orioles indeed lost 25 percent of their 3.5 million ticket buyers, they would suffer a $17.08million shortfall at their current average ticket price of $19.52 - not to mention accompanying shortfalls in concessions, parking and perhaps even radio and television rights.

Perhaps the damage wouldn't be that severe. Perhaps new fans would find their way to Camden Yards.

But Angelos would say he might no longer have the resources to re-sign a Mike Mussina - disregarding that he has the resources now and might lose Mussina, anyway.

Whether you're talking about newspapers, baseball teams or software manufacturers, competition keeps businesses on edge, forces them to operate more efficiently.

If the Orioles' revenues decreased, they would need to hire sharper executives, place greater emphasis on player development and become more selective in awarding long-term contracts.

Why, they would need to operate just like their new neighbors to the south - the Expos.

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