Orioles defy all business models

September 05, 2007|By JAY HANCOCK

If the hapless Orioles were a stock, which stock would they be?

Enron, you say? It did shareholders the favor of shutting down and disappearing. For Orioles fans, closure never comes.

JDS Uniphase, the maker of communications hardware, has provided enough material for a bloopers reel. But it attained glory in the not-so-distant past, reaching $1,000 a share (reverse-split adjusted) in 2000, which surely merits a pennant in the lobby. The Orioles have not reached similar heights since Cal Ripken had a full head of hair.

Shall I compare the Orioles to Countrywide Financial?

No, because the troubled mortgage lender admits it has a problem and has taken steps to fix it (by reducing loans to subprime borrowers). Orioles management under owner Peter Angelos keeps doing the same thing and expecting a different result, which is the definition of insanity attributed to Albert Einstein.

Mattel's recall of lead-tainted toys is even more disgraceful than giving up 30 runs to a last-place team or getting no hits against a kid pitching his second major-league game.

But you can argue that Mattel has been hurt partly by factors outside its control: subcontractors in China using unapproved paint without its knowledge. Orioles management has been hurt only by its own incompetence. True, the arrival of the Washington Nationals posed an extra challenge, but the pattern of poor performance was established long before Alfonso Soriano swung a bat inside the District of Columbia.

No, you may search the annals of business long and hard to find a case like the Baltimore Orioles Inc.

The mere fact that Forbes magazine valued them last year at $359 million, twice the price Angelos and partners paid in 1993, doesn't make them a success. The team's worth has risen with that of most baseball clubs and hasn't appreciated as much as that of other mid-market organizations.

Orioles attendance has fallen 40 percent from a decade ago. Dave Trembley is the team's eighth manager in 13 years. Angelos' latest executive-development system seems to be to promote the guy sitting next to the guy who just got fired. Hang in there, ballboys, and you'll soon rise to the top! (Angelos was in a meeting last night and unavailable, his assistant said.)

The once-valuable farm system is now a shadow of its former self. The business plan is from the Mr. Bean School of Management. The team constantly overpays for alleged talent. And in the "metric" that matters most in this business - results on the field - the Orioles are headed toward finishing more than 20 games out of first place for the seventh year in a row.

Consultant Donald Bibeault has written a well-known self-help book for dysfunctional companies called Corporate Turnaround: How Managers Turn Losers into Winners! The chapters on why companies fail could have been taken from the Orioles' front office: "One-Man Rule," "Lack of Management Depth," "The Unbalanced Top Management Team," "Fighting Reality" and "The Ostrich Approach."

The funny thing about the sports business is that the ostrich approach lets you flout reality for a lot longer than if you were selling mortgages or soda pop. Thanks to antitrust exemptions and revenue-sharing, floundering franchises get propped up by successful teams and league momentum.

In any other industry, creative destruction would have worked its magic, and the Orioles' worth might have fallen into the neighborhood of Jay Gibbons' batting average.

Instead, the pain continues for everybody. The real measure of the Orioles' worth is the devotion of its fans. If that was priced on Wall Street, the August performance of the Dow Jones industrial average would have been even worse than it was.

jay.hancock@baltsun.com

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