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.
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.
Better yet, Angelos seemed determined to spend as much as necessary to restore the Orioles to glory. The club made the postseason in 1996 and 1997. More than 3 million fans annually packed Camden Yards. On the surface, everything seemed grand.
But the cracks had already begun spreading. Angelos failed to renew the contract of popular radio broadcaster Jon Miller. Manager Davey Johnson abruptly resigned after the 1997 playoff run in a contract dispute with Angelos. General Manager Pat Gillick quietly walked away the following season, tired of butting heads with ownership.
In 1998, the Orioles fell into futility. Gillick's successor, Frank Wren, left after only one season and said the Orioles would never win with Angelos in charge. It was a view that spread over time, with Sports Illustrated eventually naming Angelos the worst owner in baseball.
Even when he didn't famously veto trades — to be fair, some of those moves ultimately worked out in the Orioles' favor — his natural instinct as an attorney to study all angles occasionally created an organizational paralysis until potential deals fell off the table. Meanwhile, the Orioles kept losing, and his reputation as a meddler was cemented.
"I don't know of any business where the owner can be called a meddler. That says a lot about people's mentality of what actually goes on," Anderson said. "What is he supposed to do? Just sit up in his office while people spend his money? Is that how it works? Pretty much [making final decisions], that's what owners do."
It hardly mattered when Angelos leveraged the arrival of the Washington Nationals into controlling interest in a new regional sports network. Fans remained skeptical he'd spend revenues from the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network to build a winner.
"Loyal ... to a fault"
In recent years, his story has taken another turn. When Angelos hired Andy MacPhail to run his baseball operations in 2007, he seemingly embraced a new direction. With the team finally winning again last season, he also received widespread credit for commissioning six sculptures at Camden Yards to honor Orioles greats.
Even at his most laudable moments, however, the Orioles owner has been reluctant to embrace the public. During the statue unveilings last summer, the youngest of Angelos' two sons, Louis, acted as family spokesman. And, with the exception of scattered boos, Louis Angelos' well-crafted speeches seemed to resonate with the crowds.
Louis, who in the past has spent most of his energies with the family's law firm, is emerging as the face of ownership in the past year. (He couldn't be reached for comment for this story.) His older brother, John, is still the club's executive vice president and is featured in the team's media guide; Louis is not. But John has taken a less public role recently after overseeing the creation of MASN and the spring training relocation to Sarasota in previous years.
Although rumors occasionally surface that the Orioles could be for sale, there never seems to be anything concrete to those whispers. There's also been no formal word as to who will succeed Peter Angelos as managing partner in the future.
The elder Angelos continues to work six days a week at his Charles Street law firm, often staying there until game time before heading to Camden Yards for the first pitch.
There's little evidence that Angelos has softened as a negotiator. He remains locked in a long standoff with the Nationals over the division of MASN profits, a source of great frustration for Washington baseball fans.
Longtime Baltimore sports agent Ron Shapiro has observed Angelos from many angles. He began as an enthusiastic supporter, but the relationship went frosty when Angelos let Miller, a Shapiro client, leave for San Francisco.
After 20 years, Shapiro gives Angelos significant credit for solidifying local ownership of the team, keeping Camden Yards vital, creating a major revenue source in MASN and helping facilitate labor peace in the sport.
"Though there are those who will lean toward some negatives of his legacy, there are significant accomplishments to support a positive legacy," Shapiro said.
Shapiro also praised Angelos for putting his trust in current executive vice president Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter.
"The recent success testifies to the impact of these moves," he said. "Now, all that he needs is a championship to put an exclamation point on the positive legacy."
In his previous three managerial jobs, Showalter worked for the Yankees' George Steinbrenner, the Arizona Diamondbacks' Jerry Colangelo and the Texas Rangers' Tom Hicks, a trifecta of ownership machismo and bluster. Showalter wasn't concerned when he took the job to work for Angelos.
"When you've been through certain things … you realize the difference between perception and reality," Showalter said. "Peter has been solid with me. Everything he has said has come to pass. We have a lot of open and frank discussions. I like blunt. He likes blunt. And he and his family have been classy to me and mine."
Showalter said when he joined the organization he received invaluable advice from late club executive Mike Flanagan: Keep the communication lines open with Angelos. Go talk to him, get to know him on a personal basis.
Once that relationship and respect are forged, Angelos exhibits deep loyalty that lasts for years, maybe a lifetime, his supporters say.
"One of the things that stands out is how loyal he is to some of us. Maybe to a fault. Including to myself. A lot of people would say including me," laughed Roberts, who has been plagued by injuries after signing a four-year $40 million extension. "That really to me is something that I think he stands for. And I think it is something we can all learn from."
Whether Angelos' legacy as club owner can come full circle if the Orioles continue to win on the field and, ultimately, capture a World Series title remains to be seen. But those who know the family believe nothing would make Angelos happier.
"Last year, he was so proud of being in the playoffs," Showalter said. "And I joked with him. I said, 'Don't get satisfied.' And he ain't. He knows we have a lot of years to make up for."