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Peter Angelos remains a powerful paradox

He is the baseball owner whose meddling has inspired years of fan griping, and the guy who wanted so badly to win, he lent more than $100 million from his personal fortune to cover his club's money losses.

He is the controlling boss who ran through six top baseball executives in less than a decade, and the man who offered his private plane and doctor to help his second baseman through back trouble.

He is the argumentative cuss who brusquely ended his friendship with a fellow civic leader, and the Baltimore kid who made good who gave $300,000 to keep the city's pools open this summer, insisting that he get no credit for the gesture.

Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos is a paradox, say friends and foes alike. And, at age 81, with fans perpetually speculating when he might fade into the background, Angelos is instead busy adding to his complicated legacy.

The Orioles will close out a volatile season on Sunday afternoon at Camden Yards. They began as poorly as they ever have in 13 straight losing seasons under Angelos, then surged behind Buck Showalter, the manager he favored from early in a mid-season search.

Beyond the field, Angelos has played a more active role than ever in the Orioles' day-to-day business operations. The team and the cable network Angelos spun off are worth an estimated $1 billion, which would be a 478-percent profit on the $173 million his group paid for the baseball franchise in 1993. Angelos also remains one of the largest Democratic political donors in the country, one of the leading philanthropists in Baltimore and a workaholic lawyer who toils 12 hours a day in his 22nd-floor office at One Charles Center.

"I think his legacy is going to be all over the map," says 1st Mariner Bank Chairman Ed Hale, whose friendship with Angelos was abruptly severed when the Orioles owner sued him for erecting billboards on 1st Mariner Arena in 2003, calling the signs "visual clutter" that could hamper westside redevelopment.

Hale, who also owns the Baltimore Blast, says he and Angelos bonded over their respective rises from Highlandtown and shared monthly lunches in Little Italy. But he says Angelos refused to see him when Hale went to his office to discuss the sign dispute. They have barely spoken in the seven years since.

"Why have two guys from the same neighborhood, both considered civic leaders, pitted in a fight like that?" Hale says. "I can't understand why we couldn't sit down and talk it out. To this day, I don't understand it. If he's not going to get his way and you won't kiss his ring, he'll cut you off."

Where critics see an impatient, combative and domineering figure who has undermined many of the praiseworthy things he's done, admirers see a brilliant, principled, generous man whose reputation is unfairly soiled by the stench of a losing baseball team.

"I think Peter is really a gift to Baltimore City," says his sometime lawyer William H. Murphy Jr. "He's a brilliant entrepreneur with a blue-collar soul. People see him as an asbestos lawyer who has mismanaged the Orioles, but that's such a warped view of the man."

Even those who appreciate Angelos' remarkable biography, however, say the Orioles' failings will overshadow his achievements.

"The only constant has been Peter and so his legacy, tragically and to some degree correctly, will reflect his stewardship of the team," says the club's former chief operating officer, Joe Foss. "It's what the public will remember about him, though it's only one facet of his life."

A guarded figure

After 13 years of losing baseball, Angelos is, in many ways, a changed figure.

Where he used to attend 70-75 games a year (he'd arrive a few innings in because he was unwilling to cut short his work at the law office), he is now rarely seen at the park. Where he once made bold pronouncements to the local press about his ambitions for the club, he now virtually never speaks on the record. Where he was hailed for rescuing the hometown team, he is now widely criticized as a meddler who can't pick the right executives and won't spend for the best players.

"He bought the team with his heart in the right place, and he's put so much of his soul and his money into it," says Janet Marie Smith, the club's vice president for planning and development. "It's painful how long it has been since he's been able to enjoy it."

Angelos has become a guarded figure who turns down most interview requests, including several for this article, and shrugs off suggestions that he spend more time around his team. Even admirers are often reluctant to talk about him.

"Does he know you're writing about him?" asks his friend, University of Baltimore President Robert L. Bogomolny. "He doesn't like it when people talk about him too much."

Angelos would not have disclosed $10 million in recent gifts to his alma mater unless Bogomolny had convinced him that the publicity would help attract other donations and unlock state funding for a new law building.

He insisted on anonymity when he donated $300,000 to help keep the city's pools operating during a historically hot summer, say two sources who confirm the gift. He has rejected publicity for countless good deeds, from donating a parking lot to the Greek Orthodox cathedral his wife's family helped found to helping with medical costs for critically ill Orioles employees. He has never disclosed his personal loans to the Orioles, though fans have accused of him of refusing to spend adequately on the team.

"He's a very private person," Bogomolny says. "But he remembers how important his education was in setting him up to accomplish the things he has. He wants others to have the same chance."

Angelos has no interest in using his good deeds to combat criticism over his baseball team, say those who wish he would talk more about his philanthropy.

"He just never feels compelled to defend himself through the media," says former Orioles outfielder Brady Anderson, who lashed out against Angelos' critics in an op-ed piece in The Sun last year. "I don't think he has time for things he thinks are trivial. But I do wish he was out there more so people could know the person I know."

When asked for an interview at a groundbreaking ceremony for the new law school named after his parents, Angelos is cordial. "Someday, we'll do it," he says. "Call my office. But no promises."

Triumph and despair

Lost in all the despair and blame accrued over 13 straight losing seasons is this: Angelos has authored a great American story.

Born on the Fourth of July, the son of Greek immigrants came of age serving steelworkers at his family's tavern in Highlandtown. He made one of Maryland's great fortunes representing those same workers in asbestos cases, blending the toughness of a street kid with the shrewdness of a born negotiator and an intellect that has consistently awed associates, employees and rivals. His share from more than $1 billion in asbestos settlements allowed Angelos to buy one of his hometown's most cherished institutions: the Orioles.

"I think his genuine motivation was to make sure this civic treasure did not fall into someone else's hands," Foss says. "Peter is deeply pro-Baltimore. There's no b.s. about that at all."

In fact, Angelos' passion for Baltimore institutions has been a constant theme in his life. After he bought the Orioles, he tried to acquire an NFL team that could be moved here. He has donated millions to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Last year, when the Preakness seemed in danger of leaving Maryland, he offered state leaders a financial hand to keep it, though ultimately, his assistance wasn't needed. In February, he paid $1.45 million for Boccaccio, the Little Italy restaurant where he hosted countless lunches with fellow power brokers over the years.

At first, Angelos fulfilled fans' dreams for the Orioles, pumping tens of millions of dollars into the on-field product. On the bats and arms of his free agents, the club made back-to-back postseasons in 1996 and 1997 after 13 years in the cold. Fans jammed Camden Yards night after night. Political heavyweights and movie stars such as Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Bill Murray toured the warehouse, soaking in the new vanguard of ballpark architecture. The national press hailed Angelos' courage in standing against his fellow owners during the 1994 strike, when he was the only one who took a pro-labor position against using replacement players.

"It was enormous fun," Foss says. "You could see him walk in with pride emanating from every pore."

Angelos assumed ownership with promises that he would not meddle. "At this juncture, my role has ended," he said just before his first season. "I am back to the spectators' ranks."

But along the way, former executives say, Angelos' lust for winning and pride in his own judgment led him to undermine his baseball decision-makers.

After proven winner Pat Gillick quietly walked away from the general manager's job because he was tired of the micromanaging, Angelos ran through a succession of executives who either rubbed him the wrong way, could not steer the team back to success or both. The club seemed forever stuck between a desire to win right away and the sense that it needed to be rebuilt from the minor leagues up.

With a hollowed-out farm system and overpaid mediocrities on the field, the Orioles became one of baseball's most consistent losers. In 2009, Sports Illustrated named Angelos the worst owner in baseball.

But even Angelos' record on baseball decisions is more complicated than it might seem. A review of the decisions that he blocked or second-guessed shows that he was often correct.

In 1996, he refused to let Gillick trade away Bobby Bonilla and David Wells, saying the moves would betray the trust of 3.5 million paying fans who expected a contender. The Orioles surged over the last two months and won the American League Wild Card. Observers say it was the turning point when Angelos became convinced of his baseball acumen.

As recently as 2006, Angelos killed a deal that would have sent second baseman Brian Roberts to Atlanta for first baseman Adam LaRoche and second baseman Marcus Giles. Roberts continued to play at an All-Star level, while Giles was out of baseball after the following season and LaRoche never matched his power totals from 2006.

"Peter shouldn't be portrayed as an ignorant baseball person," Foss says. "His methodical reviews of medical records were right on, and in individual cases, he was often right on in turning down deals."

The problem, former executives say, is that Angelos created an environment of mistrust in which his general managers couldn't execute deals because counterparts from other teams believed the owner had the final word.

Gillick rarely felt comfortable in the job after Angelos blocked him in 1996, and left two years later. After a year off, he built playoff teams in Seattle and later Philadelphia.

Angelos showed even less confidence in Gillick's successor, Frank Wren, who said he tried to resign a few weeks after he was hired for the 1999 season and was fired after less than a year.

"I couldn't deal with that level of involvement from Peter and his boys," Wren told former Sun columnist John Eisenberg for "From 33rd Street to Camden Yards," his oral history of the club. "You needed approval for things and the approval process dragged on forever, so long that you couldn't hardly get anything done."

Wren, now the general manager of the Atlanta Braves, predicted that the Orioles would never be a consistent winner under Angelos. "Nobody can go forward with anything that's going to be productive without an OK from Peter, and he doesn't understand most of the issues," Wren, who couldn't be reached for an interview, told Eisenberg. "I just don't see how it can work."

In fact, Angelos could not find the winning formula with Wren's replacement, Syd Thrift, or with the two-headed executive teams of Mike Flanagan/Jim Beattie and Flanagan/Jim Duquette. Nonetheless, he maintained a burning desire to win, say former executives. Nowhere was that more evident, sources say, than in his willingness to give hefty personal loans to cover the team's financial losses in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The loans, never publicly revealed by Angelos or confirmed by the club, totaled more than $100 million, according to sources familiar with team finances.

Angelos then wiped away the financial pressures with what many consider his best and boldest stroke as Orioles owner.

After years of fighting baseball's expansion to Washington, he leveraged the 2005 arrival of the Nationals into a dominant stake in the cable network that broadcasts both teams' games. The network's deals with local cable carriers provide a never-ending stream of cash that should, theoretically, allow the Orioles to compete with television-rich rivals such as the Yankees and Red Sox.

Executives familiar with the business say the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network was immensely profitable from Day 1 and churns out as much as $45 million a year, despite sub-standard advertising sales. Because of long-term deals that force cable providers to pay $2 a household across a huge geographic region, the network is almost impossible to mess up, cable analysts say, even in lean advertising times.

"He made the deal of a lifetime, and he hasn't gotten the proper credit for it," says Bob Leffler, whose Baltimore-based advertising agency works with MASN and Angelos' law office along with numerous sports teams around the country. "The big things people do as stewards of a franchise are often lost in the winning and losing. But the base of this franchise is solid."

Angelos capitalized on his reputation as an unrelenting negotiator to create MASN, a $600 million property, almost overnight, says an executive who was involved in the negotiations.

"They were scared to death to negotiate with him," the executive says of Major League Baseball officials.

A new era

For years, Angelos discounted the accepted wisdom that an owner should keep his hands out of baseball decisions.

Nonetheless, sources said that at the time Angelos hired Andy MacPhail in 2007, he promised wide latitude to the new president of baseball operations. By all accounts, that has happened.

"I would not have moved my family here if I did not implicitly trust the man," MacPhail says. "And he's lived up to his end."

Angelos allowed MacPhail to trade stars Erik Bedard and Miguel Tejada for prospects. He invested heavily in contracts for first-round picks Matt Wieters, Brian Matusz and Manny Machado and lower-round draftees such as Jake Arrieta.

MacPhail says Angelos never had to assure him that he would not meddle, because the pair — familiar from serving together on panels dealing with leaguewide issues — had similar views on the division of responsibility between management and ownership. MacPhail says he can't speak to Angelos' past interactions with baseball executives but says he has always believed the owner should have final say on major trades, signings, hires and business moves such as the selection of a new spring training site. Management, he says, should deal with roster moves, scouting assignments and the other daily minutiae of running a club.

"We had an understanding, and he has more than lived up to it," says MacPhail who added that Angelos has generally been more hands-off than his previous bosses in Minnesota and Chicago.

After reviewing the club for three months at the end of the 2007 season, MacPhail told Angelos that a new approach was needed — greater investment in the farm system and patient cultivation of young talent, even in the face of poor on-field performance. Angelos agreed, he says, and has demonstrated no loss of faith in the approach.

When short-term buys, such as first baseman Garrett Atkins, have gone badly, MacPhail hasn't heard rebukes from Angelos. "He has never called me and said, 'Why the hell did you do that?'" he says.

"We are operating differently today," MacPhail says. "We took a turn. … He's given us a lot of room. Sometimes, we've had to explain that if we want to win, we need to step back a bit to get there. And he's kept to that as an article of faith with management."

Fans have expressed frustration that the MASN revenue has not led to bigger spending on players, but that's not entirely true, MacPhail says. The Orioles have invested heavily in the draft, made a $140 million offer to first baseman Mark Teixeira (who chose the Yankees instead) and picked up more players than planned in the offseason, he says. MacPhail adds that he, not Angelos, has been reluctant to spend big on free agents when the club's young talent is still congealing.

"All those things that I've thought were most important, he has been willing to spend on," MacPhail says. "We just needed to get the foundation together."

At $81.6 million, the Orioles ranked 17th in the league in payroll in 2010, about $80 million behind the Red Sox and $125 million behind the Yankees. It's a far cry from the late 1990s, when the club briefly held the all-time record for payroll. But MacPhail predicts that MASN will help the Orioles compete with Boston and New York for players when the time is right.

A busy year

Despite maintaining a low public profile, Angelos has been a key player this year in a number of dramas related to the Orioles.

He has supervised the club's day-to-day business dealings more closely than he has for most of his tenure as owner, filling a vacuum left when his son, John, took a step back from his work with the club. In recent years, John Angelos played a major role in launching MASN and overseeing the business operations of the team. He maintains his titles with the club and network but has been less involved with operations this year, according to sources familiar with the business. The sources could not say why John Angelos has been less involved, and he declined an interview request.

Peter Angelos has met weekly with Janet Marie Smith to discuss the $31 million rehabilitation of the spring training complex in Sarasota. He has opined on everything from the color of the stadium's stucco facade to the need for more elevators to accommodate Florida's elderly.

"I'm stunned by how much he does," says Smith, one of the key minds behind the design of Camden Yards who returned to the Orioles after eight years with the Red Sox. "He's always willing to hear the short story and the long story and nine times out of 10, he accepts my recommendations."

In April, with his team playing horribly, Angelos broke his usual silence to rebut a FoxSports.com report that he had decided not to hire Cal Ripken Jr. for a baseball position. Ripken subsequently said that he and Angelos meet and/or speak up to three times a week to discuss his possible role with the franchise.

"They have a good relationship," says Ripken spokesman John Maroon. "When the team is in a state of flux and they have dinner, it's natural for speculation to start flying. But when nothing happens, it doesn't mean it's because there's a problem."

When outfielder Nick Markakis expressed concern over the Orioles' direction in June, Angelos, who rarely interacts with players, invited him to lunch at Della Notte in Little Italy. Markakis came away impressed at Angelos' command of so many arenas. "He knows a lot more than what people think," the outfielder says. "He's a sharp tool. … He cares. He cares as much as we do."

This summer, Angelos rejected preliminary terms of a deal that had been negotiated between MASN officials and the Ravens, creating a public perception of tension between him and Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti. In fact, sources on both sides say, Angelos simply didn't see the Ravens as essential to his network and thought the preliminary agreement was too favorable to the football team.

Angelos waited to submit his revised terms until just before the Ravens had to pick a programming home for the 2010 season. Such brinksmanship has worked for him ever since the asbestos settlement, which came only after Angelos had rejected numerous smaller settlements over the years. In this case, Angelos was willing to let the Ravens sign a deal with Comcast SportsNet rather than accept terms he found unfavorable.

Of all Angelos' Orioles activities this year, none received more scrutiny than the hire of Showalter.

MacPhail began the search for a new manager by handing Angelos a book of more than 30 potential choices. He told the owner he wanted a more-seasoned hand, and Angelos agreed, noting his own desire for a more disciplined manager who would command instant respect from players. Together, they quickly narrowed the pool, also agreeing that the manager should start during the season so he could get a jump on assessing the club's talent.

Angelos, who never formally interviewed previous manager Dave Trembley, sat in on meetings with Showalter, former New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine and former Cleveland Indians manager Eric Wedge. But MacPhail says, "He was in Buck's corner from the start."

Showalter remembers Angelos letting MacPhail ask most of the questions. "He's a very good listener," the manager says. "But he has a lot of passion for the Orioles and getting us back to where we were. He's a competitive man across all aspects of life and if that doesn't come through to you, you're just not very perceptive."

MacPhail and Angelos spoke often as they neared a decision. "Peter is a lawyer," MacPhail says in describing the nature of their talks. "He likes to argue. And you better make a good argument, but if you do and you marshal your facts, he hears you. We talked as two lawyers might talk."

The candidates asked some questions about MacPhail's working relationship with Angelos, though "maybe not as many as you'd think," the team president says.

"I've been here 3 1/2 years," he recalls assuring them, "and I've talked to the guy less than I talked to [Carl] Pohlad in Minnesota or the Tribune guys in Chicago."

By agreeing to sign a high-profile former manager, current and former players say, Angelos showed how badly he still wants to find a fix for the franchise.

"I think people think that he doesn't care, but when you talk to him, you realize that he does," says Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts. "You realize that he pays attention, and he follows everything. I think people sometimes get the feeling that he doesn't even know that he owns the team. That's the word I hear around often and that's so far from the truth."

Showalter says this about his few months of working for Angelos: "I think he's a guy who hires people to do a job and then gets out of the way. That's my perspective on him. He just expects you to keep in mind what the end game is."

Actually, MacPhail and several team leaders say they would like Angelos to show his face at the ballpark more often. Players get a kick out of meeting the owner, they say, though only a few, such as Markakis and Roberts, have spent extended time with him.

Over the years, Angelos has let players fish the pond at his Baltimore County farm and sent gifts when they have children. He takes a particular shine to Orioles who put down roots in the city. For example, he staunchly defended Roberts when the player admitted using steroids, citing the second baseman's extensive work for the University of Maryland Children's Hospital.

"Was he disappointed?" Roberts says of the owner's reaction to his steroid admission. "I'm sure, he probably was. But he was just there for me … I'm not saying he condoned anything and obviously, I didn't either. But once you got past the initial, 'I made a mistake,' it was, 'let's move forward to see what you can do to handle this in a positive way. Let's turn a negative into a positive and start right now.'"

When Roberts battled back trouble this season, Angelos, who was enduring back pain himself, offered to fly the second baseman to California on his personal jet to see a specialist who had treated the owner.

"He was obviously in pain and struggling," Roberts says. "Yet, he was thinking about my back when he was [in California]. That said a lot to me."

Anderson got to know Angelos when they negotiated a new contract for the outfielder in 1997. More than dollar debates or talk about the team, he remembers Angelos' sweeping discourses on America's decline as an industrial nation. "He's just a really interesting guy to talk to," Anderson says. "People who don't know him are missing out. He's an interesting combination of an intellectual and a street guy."

Anderson says that in his era, players admired Angelos both for his stands on labor issues and his willingness to pay for stars such as Rafael Palmeiro and Roberto Alomar.

"What I love about him is he's willing to take a stand, even if it hurts him," Anderson says. "He won't compromise his beliefs. He just won't."

What lies ahead

For years, fans and analysts looking at the future of the club have wondered if Angelos might consider selling.

Baseball executives say a sale would make little financial sense given the tax hit Angelos would face after taking years of substantial write-offs afforded to team owners. He could will the team to Georgia, his wife of 44 years, and if she outlives him she would inherit it without having to pay tax on the appreciated value (probably at least $360 million).

Of Angelos' two sons, John has been far more involved in running the Orioles, despite his absence this year. The younger son, Lou, practices law at Angelos' firm. Several sources familiar with the family say John Angelos is underestimated — a bright man who became a serious student of the cable business during the MASN launch and proved an effective negotiator during the club's search for a new spring training home.

But John Angelos has shown little interest in being a public figure, and some former club executives wonder if he would knowingly take on the public scrutiny that goes with running a baseball team.

Though the option hasn't been widely discussed in public, Angelos or his heirs could sell the team but hold onto MASN, the more profitable and valuable of the two properties. They might attract fewer bidders if they offered the club but not the network, says John Moag, whose Baltimore-based investment banking firm specializes in sports transactions. Moag says the two properties combined would probably sell for $1 billion or more.

In the near term, no one expects Angelos to explore selling. Longtime associates say he would be going against his nature if he did so. Angelos made his fortune by refusing to give in, they say, and he wants to be the one to find a winning formula for his highest profile property.

"My belief," MacPhail says, "is that what he really wants is to turn it around and get us back in the playoffs."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.

Peter Angelos timeline

1992- Angelos wins asbestos settlements totaling more than $1 billion

1993- Angelos-led group buys the Orioles at auction for then-record $173 million

1994 – Angelos wins adulation for standing against owners' talk of using replacement players during strike

1996 – Angelos blocks trades of Bobby Bonilla and David Wells, who then help Orioles to postseason

1997 – Orioles go to second straight postseason and post last winning season of Angelos tenure

1998 – Pat Gillick, architect of the two playoff teams, walks away at the end of his contract

1999 –Frank Wren resigns after less than a year as top baseball executive and says Orioles will never win consistently under Angelos

2005 – Angelos reaches compensation deal with MLB that gives him dominant stake in regional network that broadcasts both Orioles and Nationals games

2007 – Angelos hires Andy MacPhail, his seventh top baseball executive in a decade

2010 – Orioles get off to worst start under Angelos but post winning record for his latest managerial pick, Buck Showalter

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