of a 17-year run of mostly exceptional baseball and two generations of fans who thought of the team as an extended member of their families and referred to virtually every member of the franchise by their first name or nickname. It was a love affair that left grown men in tears when Earl Weaver and Jim Palmer retired and forced full families into tears when the team made an emotional departure in the fall of 1991 from gritty 33rd Street and Memorial Stadium to the shiny, new retro ballpark at Camden Yards in the spring of 1992.
Every Baltimorean who was alive that day vividly remembers those events. The Orioles were like royalty and Memorial Stadium was a closing castle. This move spanned the generations for Baltimore sports fans.
The Orioles, simply put, were considered a public treasure – an institution respected, revered, loved and admired. And after the Baltimore Colts were stolen away to Indianapolis in the middle of the night on March 28, 1984, by a carpet-bagging, Chicagoan with a penchant for vodka at 10 a.m. named Robert Irsay, the baseball team took on an even bigger role in civic pride, especially after the 1983 World Series championship. Overnight, Baltimore had become a one-sport town.
But while things were postcard-perfect for the business of the Orioles in 1993, Jacobs – the epitome of an “outsider” in intensely provincial Baltimore, a Boston native and resident of New York – was in the midst of a massive financial crisis.
The team bottomed out on the field in 1988 with an 0-21 start and an ailing owner but the promise of the stadium and an exciting team in 1989 gave Jacobs’ $70 million investment some security. But other than being a fan, he knew very little about operating a baseball team and allowed limited partner and C.E.O. and President Larry Lucchino, a holdover from Williams’ ownership, to operate the club on a strict budget after pulling a power play to make sure that Sargent Shriver, a third partner, wasn’t influential with the franchise.
From 1990 to early 1993, under Jacobs’ reign, the obvious growth in attendance and interest did very little to positively affect the quality of play on the field. Each year, when the team could’ve used better players at the trading deadline, the Orioles were forced into low-budget, low-risk, low-ceiling veterans and an eventual late summer fade. And the franchise was reeling from the results of a poor 1991 trade with the Houston Astros that netted a broken-down slugger named Glenn Davis in exchange for three young players – outfielder Steve Finley and pitchers Peter Harnisch and Curt Schilling – who were all turning into quality MLB players.
Meanwhile, Jacobs was getting skewered on sports talk radio in Baltimore, where the Orioles were the only game in town. And Jacobs was considered a “cheapskate” by Orioles fans and he was very succinct and vocal in wanting to relinquish his investment, even before his economic issues fully hit the media.
As an asset, it was hard to argue with the growth of franchise values for anyone who assessed the industry. Major League Baseball franchises had usually tread water in annual income but the emerging trend of publicly-financed stadiums along with growth in television revenue and marketing money made the franchises climb in resale value. Plus, any good attorney and accountant would tell you that it’s a helluva tax shelter for anyone wealthy.
The biggest issue regarding the sport as a whole during the summer of 1993 was the impending labor doom and gloom that surrounded the game for more than two decades. A draconian policy called the “reserve clause” bound MLB players to the same team for the lifetime of their baseball career, which artificially suppressed their salaries and earning potential for decades. In 1975, the Major League Baseball Players Association under the leadership of Marvin Miller won a case that became known as the Seitz Decision, which open the gates for free agency and open bidding on the best players in the game.
For two decades, player salaries escalated, sometimes in rather arbitrary and outsized ways, as competitive owners who wanted to win didn’t care as much about losing money as they did about holding up a championship trophy for their respective hometowns. Rich, egotistical men buy sports franchises to feed their egos and to feel the power of competing and winning a championship and civic respect. But these Major League Baseball owners, on the whole, were also tired of getting beaten at the negotiating table over and over again by the MLBPA at every cycle while many were legitimately losing money each year even though the clubs’ respective values upon resale seemed to be making up the difference.
The summer of 1994 figured to be an Apocalyptic battle between the players and