Fans' lack of D.C. angst has root cause on field

September 25, 2004|By JOHN EISENBERG

HOW TO CHARACTERIZE local reaction to the news that Major League Baseball is likely returning to Washington?

Let's call it somewhere between indifferent and flat-out bored.

The Orioles' "sky is falling" assertions aren't quickening the pulses of many of their faithful.

One reason is the Baltimore sports fan can see right through Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos' claim that the Baltimore-D.C. market isn't big enough to handle two teams.

Former Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke voiced that piffle for years to try to keep pro football from returning to Baltimore, as local fans bitterly remember.

The Ravens' success on and off the field has proved it wrong, as local fans now proudly point out.

True, baseball's economics are different from football's, relying more on local rather than national revenues, so there's validity to Angelos' claim that a team in D.C. will damage his bottom line.

But such damage could be no worse than the harm the Orioles have inflicted on themselves.

Seven years of losing baseball have eliminated any chance of the masses inciting behind Angelos in this crusade.

The city's collective yawn should be considered a payback for the lack of continuity, the running off of executives who knew how to win, the managerial shuffle, the power vested in Syd Thrift, Jon Miller's departure - each of the many mistakes that have helped make summers around here less interesting and less successful, but ever more expensive.

Whatever advantage Angelos had with the market all to himself, he has failed to make the most of it.

No one knows that better than the fans who have endured the franchise's lapse into dysfunction.

When might those fans be expected to rally in protest of baseball coming to D.C.?

Right after the parade celebrating the Orioles' World Series victory.

Everyone understands a team in D.C. will take a significant bite out of the Orioles' cable television profits, a key revenue stream.

Everyone also knows it would be irresponsible of Angelos not to fight the move on such grounds, as he is doing, infuriating many in Washington.

Baltimore fans should appreciate his passion and willingness to fight for the team's sake. Evidence of his intentions was offered yesterday when he refused to negotiate with baseball chief operating officer Bob DuPuy, who came to Baltimore ready to offer compensation for moving a team so close to the Orioles.

There should be no doubt that Angelos wants the best for the Orioles. But the best isn't any less likely to materialize now, just because another team is 40 miles away.

The Orioles can still put a winner on the field, but they need to do a better job of developing young talent, a fundamental task at which they have mostly failed for the past two decades.

They can still put a winner on the field, but they need to operate more soundly, starting with an appropriate chain of command. (Memo: The manager always gets to hire some of his coaches.)

They can still win, but not as long as the owner overrules the scouting department on draft day and forces the team to make a first-round selection it wasn't going to make.

Such shenanigans might seem relatively unimportant compared with the shrinking of the revenue stream, but they illustrate the self-defeating management that has come to define the franchise.

Having your assets whacked is a setback, but with all due respect, it's more important that the Orioles look in the mirror and start righting the many wrongs that have brought them down.

They're 55 games under .500 since Angelos took over in 1994, and there's no blaming the D.C. Expos for that.

He has owned the team for 11 seasons, and only three have ended with the team over .500.

Before he took over, the Orioles were winners in 27 of their first 40 seasons.

In other words, the sky can't fall now because it already fell.

To understand that, one need only experience the embarrassing scene that unfolds at Camden Yards when the Yankees and Red Sox visit and their fans take over.

Shrinking revenues won't help the Orioles eradicate that blight, but then again, the franchise probably needs a new paradigm. This one certainly isn't working.

If it's time to get somewhat smaller and smarter, so be it. That's life. The Orioles had their chance to control the baseball market from Pennsylvania to Virginia, and they blew it.

And besides, they're not just going to vanish because a team is landing in D.C.

They play in one of baseball's jewels, a park that has helped them sell an average of more than 3 million tickets through seven losing seasons, quite a show of loyalty.

They have a famous name, a grand tradition and a broad confederation of supporters waiting for the slightest spark of success to glow again.

Put a winner on the field and it won't matter that a team has landed in D.C.

Put a winner on the field and more than enough people will stop yawning and come out and cheer for the Orioles.

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