As the Orioles get it together, baseball is set to come apart

July 16, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN THE BOTTOM of the seventh inning, with God in his heaven and the New York Yankees asleep, Jerry Hairston dropped a suicide-squeeze bunt. Brian Roberts came sprinting home like Bambi. The ball lay there in the grass, and the powerful Yankees looked flummoxed, and the energetic, sprightly, surprising Baltimore Orioles were on their way to a stunning 4-3 victory.

Now it was an hour later, and 41,583 people had cleared out of Oriole Park at Camden Yards that night, leaving only the grounds crew below to clean up and Peter Angelos lingering in his mezzanine-level luxury suite and basking in the afterglow.

"It's coming together," he said.

He said it softly, so as barely to be noticed. He's been talking against a tide of critics. They had his club wallowing in baseball's sub-basement again after last season's disaster. In the first year A.C. (After Cal), everybody envisioned attendance falling through the floor. And then there was the business about a new ballclub for Washington, which could end the era of Baltimore as a big-time market capable of competing against the Yankees.

On this night of June 26, Angelos rattled off a list of names, recited like a mantra: Jorge Julio and Gary Matthews, Rodrigo Lopez and Willis Roberts, Jay Gibbons and Geronimo Gil, and what about those two kids who combined on that suicide squeeze?

What unites all of them is not just the uniform, but their age, and an organizational plan. The plan, much-ridiculed coming into this season, begins to take on added importance as baseball seems marching toward a cliff. In city after city, there is talk of financial chaos. The commissioner talks of contracting the number of teams. The newspapers are filled with strike stories.

Three decades ago, on the brink of free agency, the average major-leaguer made $34,000 a year. Now he makes more than that each breathtaking week. The average salary is $2.4 million. But even this figure only hints at the problem: the growing gap between all those clubs unable to afford such salaries - and those few clubs, such as the Yankees with their huge drawing area and their huge broadcasting contracts, that can pay whatever it takes to win and win.

The Yankees' payroll is now about $135 million. That is more than double the payroll of more than half of all major league teams. It is $5.4 million per Yankee - about $100,000 per player, per week. Only two teams in baseball have payrolls even three-quarters that amount. One is the Texas Rangers, who are paying Alex Rodriguez an insane $252 million over 10 years. The other is the Boston Red Sox, who benefit from having all of New England from which to draw fans and broadcast money.

Now Angelos was thrown another name: Jim Thome. He is the Cleveland Indians' powerful first baseman, widely believed to be leaving for another team. This is the modern way. Thome has been a cog in the powerful Indians teams of the past decade. But, owing to huge salaries and fading abilities, the Indians have traded off fading stars and begun a youth movement.

Three clubs are mentioned prominently when Thome's name comes up. One is Baltimore, owing to Angelos' deep pockets and Thome's relationship with Mike Hargrove, the Orioles manager who used to manage Cleveland.

"Thome?" Angelos said. "Nah. Good ballplayer. But he's looking at a $100 million deal, which is what we're trying not to do. We want these kids to develop."

No one has ever accused Angelos of being a tightwad. In the nervous time after the Colts left, and it appeared the Orioles might fall into another in a series of out-of-town owners, Angelos spent big to keep them here, and then spent millions more to buy a couple of playoff seasons.

But now, as baseball marches toward the abyss, the Orioles have changed direction.

"Every team in baseball is watching us," Angelos said.

The Orioles have flirted with .500 all season with a team composed mainly of kids. Some think they're only two impact players away from playoff contention next year - if there is a next year. Angelos sits on the owners' negotiating team.

"We may be able to avoid" a work stoppage, he said. He is an optimist by nature, but he said the words cautiously. While strike talks loom, there have been new reports this summer of a baseball team for Washington. Angelos is against it. His team has drawn heavily from Washington. Since Oriole Park opened, the ballclub has never drawn fewer than 3 million people a year. This year, the Orioles are on track for 2.8 million home attendance.

"Why would baseball move a team to Washington and threaten one of its healthy franchises?" Angelos asked.

On a night of sweet victory, in a summer of pleasant surprise, that question lingered in the air. The beauty of the suicide squeeze brought Baltimore victory on this night. But the game seems determined to commit suicide in so many other, darker ways.

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