Birds have yet to be freed, but protesters can fly high

The Baltimore Sun

Local radio personality Nestor Aparicio didn't get the 10,000 protesters he hoped would attend his "Free The Birds" rally at Camden Yards yesterday, but he did get the Orioles' attention - and wasn't that the whole idea?

More than 1,000 black-shirted Orioles fans marched through the Inner Harbor and into the upper deck at Oriole Park, where they spent about an hour loudly encouraging Orioles owner Peter Angelos to sell the team. Then, at the predetermined time of 5:08 - 5 for Brooks Robinson and 8 for Cal Ripken - they marched back out, winding through the lower deck like a giant conga line during the middle innings of the Orioles' 4-3 victory over the Detroit Tigers.

It was Thomas Jefferson who said "a little revolution now and then is a good thing," and he didn't have to suffer through nine straight losing seasons. Aparicio's Army tried to do what 1 1/2 million empty seats couldn't - convince Angelos that he lacks the administrative acumen to run a successful baseball franchise.

Good luck with that. Angelos has watched his attendance fall from a high of 3.71 million in 1997 to about 2.14 million when the Orioles wrap up their final home series of the year against the Minnesota Twins on Sunday. If you want to put that in monetary terms, just the ticket revenue from those 1.6 million phantom fans would be about $35 million a year.

So, if something like $175 million in unrealized gate revenue over the past five years (which is about the price that this ownership originally paid for the team) didn't persuade Angelos to punt, what hope do 1,000 frustrated fans who actually paid their way into the stadium have to make their point?

"We love the O's," Chris Drazdys of Catonsville said. "We just want them to be better."

Angelos remains unrepentant, if his comments to the Associated Press were any indication.

"Whoever joins that protest has no comprehension of what it costs to run a baseball team," Angelos told the AP from his law office yesterday. "When you get down to facts, putting together a team that can compete in the AL East means having a payroll between $100 million and $110 million. That money comes from the consumer, and I have chosen to keep ticket prices to a minimum."

In other words, that milk in the refrigerator may be really sour, but it didn't cost very much, so drink it and shut up.

"Our payroll is $75 million, and our ticket prices average $22. Some of the teams we compete against charge an average of $45," Angelos added. "We're going to have to match the competition. How to do that is a decision I will make in the future."

If you're trying figure out what that means, join the club. The Mid-Atlantic Sports Network is up and running, which is supposed to infuse the team with enough revenue to pump up the payroll to a point where the Orioles can compete with the Yankees and Red Sox. Orioles attorney Alan Rifkin said after the final snags were worked out with Comcast that the impact on the team would be "immediate."

Angelos, however, sent a mixed message in a recent interview in the sports weekly Press Box when he talked about boosting the payroll, but described the $14.5 million per year contract extension recently signed by Houston Astros pitcher Roy Oswalt as "lunacy."

So, which is it? Are the Orioles going to go after top players in the free-agent market or are they going to stop short of paying top dollar to keep the payroll reasonable?

It is that kind of ownership ambivalence that sent Nestor's Naysayers out into the street yesterday. They no longer believe anything that Angelos says and they want an owner who cares about winning as much as they do.

Executive vice president Mike Flanagan seemed to recognize that when he delivered the club's official reaction to the rally.

"They showed a lot of passion and a lot of exuberance," Flanagan said after the game. "It reminded me a lot of when I played here in the 1970s. We are on the same page. We share that passion and exuberance. ... They are passionate fans. They want to win. We want to win. It has been too long."

When the protesters filed out, they left a crowd heavy with Tigers fans, who have seen this kind of thing before. Disgruntled fans rallied against the ownership of Mike Ilitch during the 119-loss season of 2003, and Lions fans wore orange to a game against the Cincinnati Bengals last December to highlight their discontent with GM Matt Millen. That protest became known sarcastically around town as "The Millen-man March."

Three years later, the Tigers are are a lock to reach the playoffs as at least a wild-card entry, so maybe there's hope for the Orioles in 2009.

Aparicio, who owns radio station WNST, has long been a critic of Angelos, and the feeling apparently is mutual.

"He is a very unimportant person who has delusions of grandeur," Angelos said.

That may be true, but for one afternoon at least, Aparicio - who is first and foremost an entrepreneur and entertainer - put on a pretty good show.

"The Peter Schmuck Show" airs on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays.

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