JUDGING BY Peter Angelos' sustained laughter, his favorite rumor this winter is the one that suggests he's knee-deep in estate planning; that he "backloaded" contracts of new Orioles free agents so the next owner can pay; that he's waiting for Major League Baseball to relocate the Expos to D.C. so he can collect his $150 million in territorial compensation, then sell the Orioles, preferably to Cal Ripken and some of the Iron Man's wealthy friends.
Actually, that's just about everybody's favorite rumor. It's a good one, but, apparently, not true.
"I refuse to die, so that's not a problem," Angelos said from his downtown law office. "And the team is not for sale."
Angelos said he recently shunned a reporter who wanted to interview him about what he thinks his legacy to Baltimore, baseball, law and politics will be.
"I said, 'What is this - a requiem for Angelos? I'm not interested. I guess if one looks at age, it's logical to think that [there's a plan in place to order his estate], but I've been known not to do the logical thing."
The game is not over for Angelos, 74. He'd rather talk about horses, his English bulldog or the excitement he feels for the coming season and - note to Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan - "I hope I'm not disappointed."
He won't even concede he's in the seventh-inning stretch of his ownership tenure, but what's baseball without a conspiracy, especially when it concerns a rich and powerful man who for so long invited the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? After six losing seasons, after a suspicious front-office churn through Pat Gillick, Frank Wren and Syd Thrift, after backlash from fans disgusted with bad contracts and no box-office attraction at Camden Yards, Angelos appears to be rising from the ashes of that six-year Orioles meltdown.
"The last four or five years, besides losing, we were faced with the possibility of a team moving into D.C. or Northern Virginia. If you're going to have a team dropped next door, you're not going to drop money on contracts that run three, four or five years. You're not going to spend that money. But that concern is not as intense as it was," he said.
Has his friend in the commissioner's office told him something we don't know? "No, I don't have any assurances," Angelos said, although his demeanor seems to suggest a new level of comfort about spending. Miguel Tejada for $72 million? Hey, if the man wants to pay ...
The fact is, all the anecdotal evidence suggests Angelos is experiencing a bit of a renaissance. He apparently has eased the antagonism he inspired in fellow owners in 1994, when he sided against their plans to use replacement players during the last work stoppage.
In 2002, commissioner Bud Selig asked Angelos to serve on the negotiating committee during labor talks with the players association. Now he's the newest member, along with Peter Magowan of the San Francisco Giants, of the prestigious Executive Council, the group that helps steer the commissioner's office.
"In baseball circles, it's quite a nice thing and good to be there. It gives me a sense of satisfaction. It's a pleasant happening," he said. "I could see if I had run for the job and not gotten it, people could guess that I might [be planning his exit] but not now." Especially not now.
Relocation of the Expos to Washington or Northern Virginia seems less of a threat. The Orioles are reorganized under Beattie and Flanagan and reloaded with Tejada, Javy Lopez, Sidney Ponson and Rafael Palmeiro. There's more policy work for Angelos to do as a member of the Executive Council to ensure baseball avoids backsliding any further from public popularity and into financial ruin.
Then there are drugs.
If the death of Orioles pitching prospect Steve Bechler caused by ephedra - now a banned substance - wasn't enough to spur a concerted effort by owners and players to stiffen drug-testing policy, then BALCO should do it. The indictment last week of four men connected to that lab has ratcheted concern to red-alert levels. The arrest of Barry Bonds' personal trainer is about what it should take - along with all those failed drug tests by major league players last March - to spur new efforts to clean up baseball.
"We're not satisfied. We hope to improve it substantially," Angelos said.
Angelos said he doesn't expect baseball will ever name players who failed tests. The grand jury seeking the results of those drug tests is in for a tough fight.
"In order to get what little we got [during the 2002 labor talks], we had to agree that the results be confidential. We made an agreement. We have no choice but to follow through. If we had not made that concession, we would not have what we have," he said.
Two years ago, as a member of the negotiating committee that staved off a work stoppage and produced an 11th-hour agreement between players and owners, Angelos said owners could not insist that their drug-testing plan be accepted by the union.
"The opposition from the other side was vehement. [Had the owners insisted on tougher testing and punishment], that would have resulted in a shutdown. We could not have made that demand in that particular fashion. Baseball could not invite a work stoppage," he said.
At the time, with fans and media railing against the idea of millionaires fighting billionaires in a so-called "labor dispute," the issue of drug testing was viewed as a bargaining chip. Owners were so eager to slow salary escalation and stop the bleeding that the drug issue could not get the attention or address it required. The situation may now be different.
"[Union representative] Gene Orza raised the specter of violations of civil rights and constitutional issues. I speak for myself and I think the rest of the owners and say we don't buy that argument. Those substances have no business in pro sports. We want a complete ban," Angelos said.
"We will [call for] it again. I haven't spoken to the commissioner about this in the past few days, but I'm confident that the commissioner will aggressively pursue this."
It looks like Angelos will have enough time and energy to devote to the Executive Council. Selig has said the Expos should be relocated by 2005, with Las Vegas and Monterrey, Mexico, having become fashionable destinations. This frees up the Orioles owner considerably, not to mention lightening his mood.
"Two years ago, there was a great deal of momentum about a team in D.C., which I wasn't sure even at that time wasn't a problem in terms of supporting a franchise there. The trouble is, their problem is our problem," Angelos said.
"The Baltimore Orioles have been here 50 years. I want them to be here 50 more years without competition strangling it from financial stability. The potential threat is there yet, but it doesn't have the momentum. My goal is to protect the franchise. This ballclub is a critical asset to the city of Baltimore and to the region.
"My goal has been to get through some difficult years, reconstruct the team while keeping a serious eye on what's happening 36 miles to the south. I've been an advocate for this franchise. I would be if I didn't have a nickel invested in it."
Ah, but he does. And that's the way it will stay, despite those wildly entertaining rumors.