Taking a look inside Orioles' inner sanctum

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Frank Wren left office as Orioles general manager in 1999, he was openly critical of Peter Angelos and his sons, saying they interfered with the baseball decisions - hindering, not helping, the product on the field.

More than three years later, Angelos knows that perception still remains throughout the baseball industry. Last fall, when the Orioles were conducting their latest general manager search, some of the candidates expressed those concerns.

Upon closer inspection, the Orioles run much differently these days than the average fan, and perhaps even the average baseball executive, seems to understand.

With a new GM tandem of Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan, Angelos still has final say, but there is no buffer between them. The younger son, Louis, works exclusively for Angelos' law firm. And while the older son, John, carries a title as Orioles executive vice president, he plays a limited role and has seldom been seen at the warehouse during the past two years, insiders say.

After playing more prominent roles during Wren's tenure, John and Louis have moved into the background, and Angelos remains so busy running the law firm, he devotes only a portion of his time to the Orioles.

"Rather than criticize me for being too involved, I should be criticized for not being involved enough," Angelos said. "I'm over here practicing law 10 hours a day. I'm not looking over the shoulders of Mike Flanagan and Jim Beattie, and I never have with the others."

If anything should happen to Angelos, his sons would inherit the Orioles, but insinuations that they spend time checking up on other club officials for their father still baffle him.

"Are they interested in the team? Of course, they are," Angelos said. "But they aren't supervising or observing or noting the performance of the people who are running the club. That isn't true at all. They don't want to do that, and nor do I want them to do that. We trust the professionals to do their jobs."

So who works inside Angelos' inner circle these days?

Meet Russell Smouse.

As the team's general counsel, Smouse worked side by side with Angelos during the latest GM search, and it was a two-man operation. With the franchise facing one of its most crucial decisions in years, Angelos and Smouse found the candidates and conducted the interviews before ultimately picking both Beattie and Flanagan to run the baseball operations department.

Smouse, a successful Maryland attorney, works primarily for Angelos' law firm.

But at this time of year, he also captains the team handling the Orioles' salary arbitration process.

The three Orioles with arbitration cases currently pending - Sidney Ponson, Melvin Mora and Jerry Hairston - must beware: Since Smouse took over the lead role for the Orioles in arbitration, the club is 5-0 in cases that have gone to a hearing.

"He's a first-rate attorney," Angelos said of Smouse.

Foss retains presence

With Smouse working the club's legal assignments, Angelos still has Joe Foss running the Orioles' day-to-day operations. Foss' role might look somewhat diminished these days because he worked closely with Angelos in the GM searches that produced Pat Gillick in 1995 and Wren in 1998, but hasn't been used in that capacity since.

Yet when Major League Baseball holds its quarterly owners meetings, Foss is still the one who accompanies Angelos. Foss works with Orioles chief financial officer Robert Ames to produce financial forecasts for the club, looking at salary costs, ticket sales, concessions, television and radio revenues, etc.

Foss negotiated the Orioles' latest two-year extension with the city of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for their spring training site and their new working agreement with Triple-A Ottawa.

"My job is unchanged from what it had been," Foss said. "I still report directly to Peter."

When it comes to baseball decisions, Angelos is showing great trust so far in Beattie and Flanagan, who rely heavily on director of baseball administration Ed Kenney, scouting director Tony DeMacio, farm director Doc Rodgers and recently hired consultant Dave Ritterpusch.

"We cannot have enough information," Flanagan said. "There might be 15 or 20 people involved in any decision."

If anyone questioned how much autonomy Angelos would give Beattie and Flanagan, it showed during the recent negotiations with free-agent catcher Ivan Rodriguez. The Orioles offered Rodriguez a three-year, $21 million contract with incentives that would have brought the total closer to $30 million, but Rodriguez eventually signed a one-year, $10.1 million contract with the Florida Marlins.

After the Orioles missed out on free-agent sluggers Cliff Floyd and Hideki Matsui, insiders say Angelos was willing to offer Rodriguez more than the $21 million guaranteed. But Beattie and Flanagan drew the line, figuring that was enough risk considering Rodriguez's history of back problems. Angelos supported their decision.

Beattie-Flanagan raves

Add Jose Cruz, and the Orioles have made offers to four free agents this offseason and struck out each time. The public backlash has been fairly intense, especially since the club went into the offseason saying it needed to add at least one major run-producer to its sluggish lineup.

On the surface, Beattie and Flanagan don't have much to show for their two months in office. They have yet to swing a trade, and their biggest signings are Deivi Cruz, Omar Daal, Kerry Ligtenberg, Jeff Reboulet and John Valentin.

Internally, however, the early reviews of Beattie and Flanagan are still glowing.

"My observation is things are working very smoothly," Foss said. "There does not seem to be any movement to try to territorialize their duties. They're in most meetings together. They share ideas and are very comfortable with the decisions that are made.

"The office environment is exceptionally open. There is an enormous focus of a team of people in the front office. It's being done with a nice touch of humor and seriousness. They are two former professional athletes, and they're competitive, but it's a very positive approach. It makes it much more comfortable and enjoyable."

Former vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift had four special assistants, and of those four, only Kenney and Larry Himes remain. The Orioles fired Danny Garcia, and Mel Didier took a job with the Texas Rangers.

Himes is now a professional scout, and Kenney's influence has increased dramatically. His role is basically the equivalent to an assistant general manager, so he is third in command on the baseball side behind Beattie and Flanagan.

"It's been a whirlwind," Kenney said. "It's busier than it'll probably ever be with the changes that were made. But it's been a very smooth transition."

Kenney is working closely with Smouse in preparation for the arbitration hearings. If agreements aren't reached beforehand, the Orioles would have a hearing before a panel of independent arbitrators with Hairston (Wednesday), Ponson (Feb. 18) and Mora (Feb. 19).

The Orioles already have Smouse warming up in the bullpen.

The rise of Smouse

Smouse grew up in Oakland, Md., 90 miles from Pittsburgh, and one of his first loves was baseball. "I really lived and died by the Pirates," he said, "and that was a bad team."

The Orioles arrived in Baltimore in 1954, and Smouse has been a fan ever since.

After graduating from Princeton and the University of Maryland School of Law, he began his law career in 1958 with the U.S. Department of Justice. He was the chair of litigation at two prominent Baltimore law offices before joining Angelos' firm in 1993.

Smouse got the chance to combine his two loves - law and baseball - when Angelos bought the Orioles in August 1993. For the first few years, Smouse teamed with arbitration specialist Tal Smith on the club's cases, and the Orioles went 2-1, winning against Alan Mills and Leo Gomez, and losing to Ben McDonald.

Smouse took over the Orioles' lead role in 1996, working closely with his son Gregory, and since that time, the club has defeated Charles Johnson and high-powered agent Scott Boras twice, along with Tony Tarasco, Arthur Rhodes and, most recently, Jose Mercedes.

Several other players have settled right before their hearing, including Jeffrey Hammonds, who waited until Smouse opened his briefcase before their hearing in 1997.

"It's a job I enjoy a lot," Smouse said. "It combines both of my interests."

And when Smouse looks at the team's overall operation, with Beattie and Flanagan on board, he sees the ingredients for success.

"Jim and Mike really complement each other, and they work well together," Smouse said. "I think they make a great team."

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