Sold! Angelos scored with '93 home run

Auction: It took months of planning, a last-minute alliance, 16 rounds of bidding and $173 million to return the Orioles to local ownership.

Orioles at 50

August 01, 2004|By Ed Waldman | Ed Waldman,SUN STAFF

It was a time when Peter G. Angelos was known as the "king of asbestos."

He was cast as a civic white knight, using the millions he had earned representing workers with asbestos-related illnesses to return the Baltimore Orioles to local ownership.

On Aug. 2, 1993, Angelos and his band of merry Marylanders bought the club at an auction in New York for $173 million - nearly $50 million more than had ever been paid for a baseball team.

"It's like another era, isn't it?" Angelos said in a recent interview in the conference room of his Charles Center law offices, which, interestingly enough, features a statue of Johnny Unitas and a LeRoy Neiman painting of the Three Tenors, but nothing that says baseball.

"It was another time, just a short period of 11 years [since buying the team]," Angelos said. "Many things have changed within that period - enormously, as well as the cost of sports franchises."

This year, the Los Angeles Dodgers were sold for $430 million in a deal that included Dodger Stadium and the team's spring training facility. In Baltimore, Steve Bisciotti paid $325 million to buy the half of the Ravens that he didn't already own.

Angelos was in a position to become a majority stakeholder after his success in the 1980s and '90s winning judgments or settlements for tens of thousands of litigants.

Born in Pittsburgh on July 4, 1929, Angelos came to Baltimore at 11, was elected to the City Council at 30 and ran unsuccessfully for mayor at 38.

He got his chance to own the Orioles because of the financial troubles of New Yorker Eli S. Jacobs, who bought the team from the estate of Edward Bennett Williams in December 1988 for $70 million.

Williams, a Washington lawyer, had purchased the team for $12 million in 1979 from brewery magnate - and Baltimorean - Jerold C. Hoffberger. Until the Orioles were promised a state-of-the-art - and built-with-state-money - new stadium, Williams would sign only one-year leases for the team to play at dowdy Memorial Stadium. Marylanders feared that he would move the Orioles to the nation's capital.

Even though Williams had signed a 15-year lease in May 1988 to play at what would become Oriole Park at Camden Yards, local ownership of what was then Baltimore's only major league team remained on the public's mind. (The Orioles' current lease will keep them at Camden Yards through 2021.)

"I became involved because I thought a local group should own the franchise, and I set out to put such a group together," Angelos said.

Jacobs disclosed that he was considering selling in a letter to then-baseball commissioner Fay Vincent in June 1991. A year later, Jacobs told some of his lenders that his investments weren't generating enough money to meet all his obligations. He needed time, he wrote in a letter, to sell assets and restructure his debt.

By December, Jacobs was in talks with William O. DeWitt Jr., a Cincinnati oil executive and a limited partner in the Texas Rangers, to sell the Orioles. DeWitt's baseball roots ran deep. His father owned the St. Louis Browns - who moved to Baltimore to become the Orioles in 1954 - in the 1940s and was president of the Cincinnati Reds in the 1960s.

The deal with DeWitt for $141.3 million was on track until March 1993, when seven banks filed petitions in a New York court to force Jacobs into bankruptcy.

The door was now open for Angelos, who until then had said he would defer to DeWitt.

"I was being discouraged by local people, who had good information, who said it was a done deal," Angelos said. "So for a while they put me off. But then I decided that I would attempt it anyway. I wouldn't accept the proposition that everything was finished."

Angelos' group of investors included almost anybody who was anybody with Maryland ties - and had a lot of money: Author Tom Clancy, comic book mogul Stephen A. Geppi, philanthropist Henry Knott Sr., producer and director Barry Levinson, broadcaster Jim McKay and tennis star Pam Shriver, who joined the group with a handshake over strawberries and cream during a break in her Wimbledon schedule.

"It was quite a group - it is quite a group," Angelos said.

"It really gives what we attempted to do and hopefully what we're striving to do - a lot of color. It gives you a little taste of what this area has produced - some really exceptional people."

The `home team'

The competition to own the Orioles turned into an out-and-out bidding contest on June 22, in what was supposed to be a routine procedural hearing in a New York bankruptcy court.

George P. Stamas, then a partner with Baltimore law giant Piper & Marbury and the man who had helped Angelos assemble his ownership group, stood up and told Judge Cornelius Blackshear that he "represented the home team, and that the home team wanted to bid" on the Orioles.

The "home team" would offer $145 million, Stamas said in the hearing. After a 90-minute recess, DeWitt's attorney came back with a bid of $146.25 million. Angelos' group replied that it would pay $148.1 million.

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