The sports business makes suckers of us all. Entire cities get swept up in the raw pleasures of watching the athletes at play, and thus willingly hand over blank checks on their emotions. A deal is struck: Communities offer their love, and the ballclubs return it by sticking around.
Around here, we know it sometimes ends differently. Robert Irsay of Chicago killed a religious experience called the Baltimore Colts. Edward Bennett Williams of Washington, D.C., sensing everyone's post-Irsay jitters, held the city hostage long enough to get himself a free ballpark. Eli Jacobs of New York, his empire drowning in debt even while the community embraces his baseball team, turns a deaf ear to Baltimore interests wishing to purchase the Orioles.
A bitterness sets in, and a desire for protection. It shouldn't matter to us who will own the Baltimore Orioles, but it does. When 45,000 people gather routinely to watch a lifeless ballclub, the machinations in business offices and bankruptcy courts should not trouble us. Since we uphold our end of the bargain every night, filling the stands, don't bother us with the boring stuff conducted by those in suits.
But we monitor the business transactions, because we have such a history of disappointment. When the attorney Peter G. Angelos joins hands with businessman Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass and novelist Tom Clancy, we feel relieved.
We know their backgrounds. The money approaches $150 million, but these men talk the language of hometown intimacy. We get a sense that they understand all sports ties must rest on a foundation of emotion, or they cannot endure.
"Financial?" Weinglass was asking at week's end. "Nah, this is more emotional than financial. If it was strictly business, I wouldn't even consider it. I'd do better keeping my money in the bank. The return's better, and it's a lot less stress."
He and Angelos met last week and asked each other a simple question: Who is this Bill DeWitt of Cincinnati, Ohio, to be buying the Orioles without people from Baltimore taking a legitimate shot?
The question has historic echoes. When Carroll Rosenbloom worked his deal to hand the Colts over to Irsay, the maneuver was done before anybody around here had a chance to get local money involved.
When Jerry Hoffberger sold the Orioles 14 years ago, he couldn't find $12 million in local money to take them, and so turned to the outsider Williams, who lost no time at all in threatening to move the club.
When the Williams estate sold the team, no local investors stepped forward until the last moment, when Hoffberger himself emerged. Later, he fumed that he wasn't treated seriously. When Eli Jacobs let it be known he wanted to sell, Weinglass telephoned him repeatedly and got the cold shoulder.
It roused the old bitterness, seemed a violation of hometown loyalty. Weinglass' offer was not far from DeWitt's, so why was LTC Jacobs stiffing him? Plus, Weinglass had a Baltimore background. Shouldn't Jacobs, profiting so grandly from Baltimore's fans, reward them by talking seriously to one of their own?
Instead, it took the collapse of Jacobs' finances, and the shift of the sale to bankruptcy court, to get Baltimore interests back into the ownership chase.
All of this takes on added importance with the football situation continuing to look iffy. Tom Clancy, once given to glowing talk of his boyhood days watching the Colts, suddenly gave up the chase for expansion football last week.
It turns out Clancy not only writes, but does arithmetic as well. Pro football is entering into a new era of free agency, in which players' salaries will climb at the same time television revenues will descend.
Next Wednesday in Atlanta, Weinglass, still seeking a football franchise, will meet with National Football League officials to discuss their asking price. Will the NFL lower it, with free agency's new math? If not, do they chill all sensible investors? It comes down now to Weinglass, and to the Florida-based corporate investment family headed by Malcolm Glazer.
"I'm in this for the long run," Weinglass said Friday. "I'm getting phenomenal vibes from the NFL. I don't think football is slipping away from Baltimore."
But this brings us to the original question. Will it be Baltimore ownership? On some level, it shouldn't matter to us, so long as the jerseys bear the city's name. But we know better around here. And that's why last week's baseball news brought such a sense of relief.