Friday was a great day on the Mobtown Sports Beat, if I am allowed to say so myself. And before I go any further, big thanks to Glenn Clark, Ryan Chell, Ryan Baumohl and the rest of the WNST production team for putting together one heck of a trip down memory lane. It’s been an eventful first year on the Mobtown Sports Beat, and while I marvel at the efforts of the production staff each and every day, they should be especially proud of their quick reactions to Gary Williams’ retirement and to John Mackey’s passing, and of their tribute to Roberto Alomar, Pat Gillick and the 1996-1997 Orioles on Friday. (Highlights are in the audio vault, and I’d encourage all to check them out.)
While celebrating the Orioles most recent stint as a legitimate contender, it was difficult not to contrast the feelings that surrounded that team with those of the present state of Oriole fandom. That however was the intention on Friday, and for the most part I think we did okay with it.
Although I was always appreciative of Alomar’s skills, I was amazed on Friday to hear the number of players, coaches and front office personnel that gave deference to Alomar not only as the best 2nd baseman they had ever seen, but as the best baseball player they had ever seen…period.
Strolling down memory lane however brings with it the inevitable realization that those days are long past, and that the likelihood of their return seems further away than ever. And as we’ve attempted at length to quantify how fast and how far the state of Orioles baseball has devolved, and surmise the reasons why, there’s an Alomar angle at least worth investigating.
There’s no denying that for at least one glimmer in time, in the reign of Peter Angelos, the Orioles were a team that was built and rebuilt to win, and appeared on the fast track to recapturing the “Oriole Way”. There’s also no denying that somewhere along the way all of that changed completely.
What’s debatable are when, why and how exactly things fell apart. There are truly a myriad of contributing factors to the downward spiral that has been the last 13 years of Orioles baseball, and an equal number of theories as to which are the real reasons. My conspiracy-minded viewpoints are fairly well documented by now, but in a nutshell here’s what I think.
In the early years of Angelos, he was a fan and ran the team as such. He spent money, showed face and chirped with pride at restoring the proud Baltimore tradition. Angelos and the Orioles may have ushered in an era of ballpark economics using the windfall that was Camden Yards to spend the team into contention. While OPACY was a nice gift to the O’s from the city, Angelos’ purchase price already had the new park factored in. The O’s has a sweetheart deal, and operated as such, until the Ravens came to town and showed the O’s what a sweetheart deal really was.
Baltimore essentially had to bend over backward to accommodate the cash strapped Browns and lure them to Baltimore. While most saw this as a necessary evil, and worth the price to return football to Baltimore, surely Angelos and the O’s saw it as inequity.
Here’s where the theory gets a little hairy, as the next part of the devolution of Orioles baseball (in my conspiracy laden opinion) was the eminent relocation of the Expos. As the saga of the Expos unwound in Montreal, it became clear that relocation was in order. What also became clear was that unlike the NFL, for which cities have routinely clamored and cut one another’s throats, MLB didn’t seem to have a lot of markets interested and economically stable enough to support a baseball team. Although MLB drug their feet for 3 long years before deciding on DC, it seemed apparent pretty early on that DC was going to be the only good choice.
A good choice that is, for everyone except Angelos and the Orioles. Already over their heads financially in the toughest division in sports, surely the O’s couldn’t sustain the halving of their market. Surely the fans wouldn’t stand for it.
While the fans didn’t exactly stand for it, they didn’t much stand against it either. The state of Maryland started thinking about ways to build the DC stadium in MD and bring in some additional revenue for themselves. The network partners at CSN saw dollar signs too and the chance at having another team to add to their lineup.
Angelos, left to fight the battle himself seemed to quickly surmise that logic dictated a team in DC would be disastrous for the O’s, but also seemed to concede that making that case to MLB would be tough while drawing 48,000 fans per night. This, in my opinion, brought about the summary destruction of the O’s.
While the conspiracy seems a bit over the top, and while there are surely loose ends to be tied up therein, the effort at anti-marketing by the team from 1999 on seems impossible to ignore. Season ticket holders, used to getting near weekly correspondence from the club saw it dissipate and eventually all but go away. The ballpark experience, across the board seemed less than in previous years with overbearing ushers and a catering to out of town fans. I may have the what’s and why’s wrong entirely, but here’s no denying the O’s tried to chase the fans away… and they succeeded at it too.
As this theory took shape in my head, it became therapeutic to some degree, as there was always the underlying memory that Angelos was a fan of the team and used to operate them as such. I expected that after the Expos’ business was settled, for better or for worse, the O’s would get back to trying to compete. Yet here we are, now years removed from the Expos’ relocation and the settlement with CSN, and as it relates to the deal the O’s negotiated with MLB, surely things worked out for the O’s about as well as could have been expected (outside of not having a team in DC at all) financially, and yet the O’s have made little or no effort at winning back the fans, or winning at all for that matter.
Somewhere along the way it would seem that whatever his original intentions may have been, Peter Angelos learned that baseball is simply a business and one that has become quite profitable for a team that has found its niche being routinely sacrificed to teams with real designs on winning ballgames. The O’s are cleaning up while playing the role of the Washington Generals of the AL East.
So back to the Alomar tie in: Fans will be fans, their whimsies change as the team’s fortunes change, and that’s to be expected. Likewise businessmen are businessmen, and that politicians and network executives saw ways to make money if not at the Orioles’ expense, at least despite them again should not be surprising. Ballplayers though are another matter altogether, and while Angelos was clearly a fan of the Orioles and ran the team in that way, he was also it seemed a fan of ballplayers. Maybe it was the ballplayers reminding Angelos that baseball was a business more than anything else that drove the point home for him once and for all.
While Angelos was a fan of his ballplayers and seemed to take care of them accordingly, it’s arguable that he never felt that fandom reciprocated or that respect appreciated. There were those who surmised that after Angelos’ infamous decision not to field a strike team to begin the 1995 season would make him a hero of sorts with players across baseball and that they’d think fondly of the O’s when contemplating free agent decisions. That never seemed to materialize, or to last.
When David Wells left the O’s to become a member of the rival Yankees it had to sting a bit, but Wells, a baseball historian and notable Babe Ruth fan came by his decision easily and honestly. With Alomar however, things seemed different.
There was no doubt that Angelos was fond of Alomar, even protective of him, possibly to the detriment of the team. While many felt the lingering aftermath of spit-gate cost the Orioles calls and games for years to come, it could be argued that Angelos proclamation in backing up Alomar and offering to pay him through his MLB mandated suspension may have made the bigger and more lasting ripples for the team moving forward. Angelos went to bat again for Alomar at the end of the 1997 season firing manager Davey Johnson over a disagreement over an Alomar fine. Yet long before Alomar reached free agency at the end of 1998, in fact long before the Johnson firing in 1997, it seemed all but a foregone conclusion that Alomar would be off to join his brother in Cleveland at his first chance to do so. For all of the goodwill that Angelos had shown Alomar during his 3-year tenure in Baltimore, Alomar it seemed always had one eye on the door, and defected to the rival Indians on top of it.
Raphael Palmeiro may have proven an example of this too. The O’s sort of fell into Palmeiro’s services for the 1994 season when the Rangers elected to sign Will Clark without negotiating with Palmeiro, the incumbent at first base. Upon signing with the O’s Palmeiro had a few choice words for his former employers in Texas, citing no love lost. Still, after one of the most successful free agent campaigns in history, Palmeiro returned to Texas and the Rangers who spurned him 5 seasons earlier without reservation.
Palmeiro it seems, never quite understood how Baltimore could pack in 48,000 fans per night yet never come up with enough votes to get him starts in the All-Star games, and quite simply went for the cash grab and return to familiar surroundings.
So by the end of 1998, for his efforts at being a player’s owner and a fan’s owner, Angelos had an overpaid and overmatched team in a top heavy division to which the fans couldn’t relate, a new neighbor at the Camden Yards complex with a much better financial deal than his own, an eminent baseball neighbor poised to split his market in half, and all of the salvageable talent still on the team defecting for greener pastures, bigger paydays and changes of scenery. And we wonder where the fan that used to own the team has gone?
As baseball opens its hallowed halls and celebrates Roberto Alomar while eschewing an otherwise deserving Palmeiro based on steroid allegations, so closes the last chapter of competitive baseball in Baltimore to date. And while both left their indelible marks on that last glorious chapter in innumerable positive ways, each may also have contributed in their own ways to its demise as well. And baseball in Baltimore is business…as usual.