When the Orioles were sold 20 years ago today for $173 million at a bankruptcy auction in New York City, the sense was that the cavalry had come to rescue its community treasure.
Leading the charge of well-heeled Maryland investors was Baltimore attorney and self-made billionaire Peter G. Angelos — the champion of the little guy who was going to make sure interlopers wouldn't take off in the dark of night with the storied franchise, the way Robert Irsay had done with the beloved Colts years before.
Two decades later, the Orioles have remained an integral part of the city, playing 80-plus games a year in their jewel of a stadium, Oriole Park at Camden Yards. But over the years the Angelos family's sparkling public reputation as saviors has been tarnished by personnel conflicts, public discourse and, more than anything, a downward spiral of losing that lasted 14 desolate seasons.
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Now the Orioles, who are attempting to capture their second consecutive playoff berth, are no longer the dregs of the American League East. And the vitriol that seemed to follow Angelos in his adopted city seems to be slowly dissipating.
"Yeah, I would say so. I mean, I think everything changes when you win," said second baseman Brian Roberts, the longest tenure Oriole. "I think the image was still pretty good in 1999 [when Roberts was drafted]. They were still coming off of some good years. I don't think anybody saw the 13 or 14 years coming that happened. … I think the Angeloses took a lot of heat for what happened, what was going on and, any time you own a company and things aren't going right, I think that's part of the territory. And I think they know that."
Angelos, who turned 84 in July, has donated millions to local, state and national non-profits and built one of the most formidable personal-injury law firms in the world. Yet his legacy is tied firmly to the Orioles, their successes and failures.
"It's sort of sad what it says about society where you can get judged critically based on a team's won-loss record. Personally, I think that's a shame," said Brady Anderson, former Oriole outfielder and current vice president of baseball operations. "He is a great person. Somebody that is super charismatic, funny, different than people would imagine. And, for whatever reason, he chooses to not defend himself in the public arena from public criticism. And I wish he would."
Angelos declined comment for this story and continues to maintain a low profile when it comes to his ballclub. He often attends several games a week, but watches from his suite, rarely interacting with fans or his players. In the 2012 playoffs, Angelos twice made an appearance in the Orioles clubhouse — after beating the New York Yankees in Game 2 of the American League Division Series at Camden Yards and after losing the deciding Game 5 at Yankee Stadium.
Both times players gravitated toward the octogenarian owner, shaking his hand and thanking him for his support. Closer Jim Johnson presented Angelos with a game ball from one of his franchise-record 51 saves. For many players, that was the first time they had ever met Angelos.
"At times, I think guys would have wished that they saw him a little bit more," said Roberts, who has had 15 to 20 interactions with Angelos. "Even as players sometimes you start to believe what people say or what you read or what you hear. 'Maybe he doesn't really pay attention or maybe he doesn't really care or maybe it's just not that important.' And then you have a conversation and you realize he knows everything that's going on. And it's important to him."
A mixed legacy
After spending the most money in all of baseball on salaries in the late 1990s, the Orioles began myriad — and failed — rebuilding efforts that dropped them in the standings and dipped their overall payroll to less than half that of the division-rival Yankees and Boston Red Sox. The Orioles still spent money in the 2000s — albeit not particularly wisely — but the public perception was that Angelos didn't put much into the team. That's an assumption that continues to irk Anderson.
"I wouldn't call him a frugal-type owner at all. Not at all. I think it is unfair," said Anderson, who points out the club's reported $92 million payroll this year puts them right in the middle of the pack in spending. "We're not a large market, but our payroll is certainly greater than most small market teams."
Despite the successes of the last two seasons, many fans and observers still view Angelos' legacy as mixed. They cannot forget all the losing seasons, all the free agents left unsigned, all the smart baseball people who departed in frustration.
"While I do think he's allowed his baseball people to make more decisions, one winning season out of 15 does not a dynasty make," said Terry Cook, co-founder of the fan alliance Occupy Eutaw Street.
Some fans get on Cook for wearing his signature T-shirt with a frowning Oriole on the front and the phrase "Stop lying to us Peter" on the back. They don't understand why Cook won't fully embrace the joy of winning.
But Cook says he'd be hypocritical if he ignored the past. For him, the breaking point came after the 2011 season, when Tony LaCava spurned the Orioles' top baseball operations job to remain an assistant with the Toronto Blue Jays.
"That really showed on a national level how poorly the Orioles organization was viewed," Cook said. "People were turning down a dream job because they didn't want to work for this guy."
The thing is, Cook, like many, started as a full-throated supporter of the Orioles owner.
In 1993, the team was sold because of the bankruptcy of its owner, Eli Jacobs. Many Baltimore fans were still haunted by the loss of the Colts, and many remained paranoid that an out-of-town owner could move the Orioles. Instead, they got a pure Baltimore figure — Angelos was born in Pittsburgh but has spent most of his life here — who'd made his fortune as a lawyer for the same steelworkers who frequented his family's tavern.