Angelos takes the first steps on road he needs to frequent

The Kickoff

March 19, 2007|By PETER SCHMUCK

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Peter Angelos came out into the sun yesterday and revealed the side of himself that Orioles fans seldom get to see.

He was relaxed, funny, engaging ... the kind of guy you might actually want to own your baseball team if you weren't already frustrated by a decade of disconnection.

Maybe it was an isolated incident, but here's hoping it's part of a concerted effort on the part of the team and its ownership to convince fans that a new day is about to dawn for Baltimore's long-struggling baseball franchise.

This is, for a number of reasons, the perfect time for Angelos to embark on a charm offensive.

The Orioles have made some significant on-field improvements, which should make them more competitive this year. The new Mid-Atlantic Sports Network is about to bloom and eventually could generate sufficient revenue to create a more level economic playing field with the Yankees and Red Sox.

For it all to come together, however, the legions of disaffected Orioles fans who have deserted Camden Yards over the past nine seasons need to get back on board. And for that to happen, they need to be disabused of the widely held opinion that nothing good will happen until Angelos sells the team.

(News bulletin: He confirmed for the umpteenth time yesterday that he has no plans to do that, so it's time for everyone to move forward.)

Angelos discounted the significance of his first visit to the Orioloes' spring training camp in several years, but it was just the kind of thing he needs to do regularly to re-establish a connection with his players and the dwindling fan base. He has been seen less and less at Oriole Park and at team-related events over the past few years, and that has to change.

"I've been pretty busy," he said yesterday. "It's not a deliberate absence. I do have obligations to the law firm, and that takes up a lot of my time, but I may improve on that. I should improve on it."

He will tell you that his image problem is the dirty work of the media, angry fans and disgruntled former employees, and - to some extent - he's right. Trouble is, it really doesn't matter who's to blame at this point. What matters is that the negative fan perceptions of Angelos and the team are so intertwined that the Orioles will not turn that corner unless Angelos willingly comes along for the ride.

It is not his nature to seek public approval, but this really isn't about him. It's about the team and its ability to re-establish itself as one of the cornerstone franchises of the American League.

Regular-season attendance has dropped from a high of about 3.7 million in the late 1990s to a Camden Yards low of 2.15 million last year. The fans need to come back, and Angelos needs to let them know - personally - that he's doing everything he can to get them back.

Of course, this creates something of a paradox, because what I'm suggesting he do is become more intimately involved with the team and its fans at a time when he is particularly sensitive to the notion that he is too involved in the day-to-day operation of the club.

"An owner is OK at times to be criticized at the appropriate time, say, for not delivering a $125 million player," he said, "but outside of that, I think it is best if the owner stays in the background."

I'm going to have to respectfully disagree. If you go back into the early years that Angelos owned the team, he was very involved in the operation of the franchise and very vocal on a variety of baseball-related issues. That left him vulnerable to criticism - and he got plenty of it - but he remained popular with the fans and the players until the series of controversial decisions that led the team into steady decline in the late 1990s and led him to withdraw from public view.

It must seem as if his alienation from the fans is irreversible at this point, but Angelos need only look to Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf for an example of an owner who went from reviled to revered in the space of one championship season.

The Orioles have a long way to go to become a legitimate World Series contender, but Angelos can speed up the process by re-embracing Baltimore the way he re-embraced his team yesterday.

Yes, he's a busy man.

Yes, he has a law firm to run.

But he also has a baseball team to save.

Charm City waits to be charmed.

The Peter Schmuck Show airs on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays.

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