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SBJ/Aug. 26-Sept. 1, 2013/Franchises
The complicated Peter Angelos
He’s been the boss, with mediocre results. But after giving his executives space, has he finally found success?
Published August 26, 2013, Page 1
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Your group paid $173 million, $50 million more than any Major League Baseball franchise had cost. Sixty percent of that was yours, making you the principal, the undisputed leader, the boss. It’s how you have always worked. No equals, no partners. The only voice that matters.
|Twenty years ago, Peter Angelos led the group that bought the Baltimore Orioles in a bankruptcy court auction.
Your local newspaper, The Baltimore Sun, routinely criticizes you. “Pride in his own judgment led him to undermine his baseball decision-makers,” it wrote about you in a 2011 profile. About the lack of interest in a 2010 team he described as “dynamically disappointing even in an era of hugely diminished expectations,” columnist Peter Schmuck wrote that “the organization is simply reaping what it has sown.” The vitriol on the streets? Even stronger. In a 2007 Sun reader poll, 91 percent of respondents chose “bad” to describe the job you had done as Orioles owner.
What seems to rankle most, besides the losing, is the inexplicable parting with Orioles stalwart Davey Johnson in 1997, after a 98-victory season and the team’s first division title in 14 years. Either that, or allowing the beloved Voice of the Orioles, Jon Miller, to be wooed away by the Giants. But there was more behind both stories that the public didn’t see. You didn’t actually fire Johnson, who tried to negotiate a contract extension through the media. Miller’s situation was far more complicated than it seemed.
But you won’t argue your positions in public. (Despite repeated requests to talk with SportsBusiness Journal about your 20 years of ownership, you never responded.)
“There’s a bluntness, a way that Peter goes about his life, that’s in conflict with dealing with the media, making your case, spinning your brand,” says Cal Ripken, who spent the last nine years of his career playing under you and remains associated with the franchise.
It didn’t help, of course, that your team couldn’t manage a winning record from 1998 to 2011. Or that you chewed up managers in Steinbrenneresque fashion — nine of them before settling on a 10th, Buck Showalter. That hiring, like many others, was roundly panned. Even Andy MacPhail, your general manager at the time, wasn’t sold on Showalter, who had been fired by the Yankees, Diamondbacks and Rangers.
When Showalter led the Orioles to 93 wins last year and their first playoff activity since Johnson’s last team, it was one of baseball’s stories of the year. Coupled with the seasonlong celebration you staged honoring the team’s living hall of famers, it almost — almost — inspired an Angelos reassessment. “I think some forgiveness has set in because the team has started to win,” says a baseball insider who lives in Baltimore and who — like many of those who have done business with you over the years — spoke only under condition of anonymity. “Still, the sense of appreciation of Peter in the city is not there.”
It won’t be, he believes, unless the Orioles manage to reach the World Series, something that hasn’t occurred since 1983. “Or maybe,” he adds, “when Peter dies.”
You’re 83 years old on a humid June evening, with 84 approaching fast. Yet, remarkably, a pennant seems far more likely than the Great Beyond.
The Orioles, a team stocked with as much young talent as any in baseball, are breathing down the backs of Boston and Tampa in the AL East. And you remain as energetic and quick-witted and contentious as ever, with a legendary work schedule that includes scant vacation time.
The Indians are visiting Camden Yards, but you’re at your desk at the law office, in the corner of the 22nd floor of a downtown skyscraper, tracking the game while reviewing cases. “Six days a week,” says Dodgers senior vice president Janet Marie Smith, who you hired in 2009 to design the team’s Florida spring training facility and spruce up Oriole Park. “He’s there early. You can always reach him late.”
“You say, ‘Don’t you want to call it a day?’” says one of your closest advisers at the firm. “But he just keeps going.”
Of course you do. Don’t they get it? Your name is the one — the only one — on the door. You take personal responsibility for every brief, every trial, every settlement. Nothing happens at that firm that doesn’t pass through your hands. “He doesn’t trust anyone,” is how someone who worked by your side for more than a decade describes you, with incredulity but also a hint of admiration. “The only person he trusts is himself.”
It’s a good line. Maybe it’s even true. Because none of them know what you know. They haven’t seen what you’ve seen.
They haven’t pored over the internal memos of corporations that harm people with asbestos and cigarettes and lead paint, documents that strategize about ways to hide evidence while raking in profits. Just the other day, you returned to a meeting with tears in your eyes after taking a phone call from a client whose lung cancer diagnosis had been confirmed. “He actually cares about the little guy,” says Brady Anderson, the former Orioles star who serves as vice president of baseball operations under Dan Duquette, executive vice president and general manager. “It isn’t just how he makes his living. He cares.”
Tommy’s right. You hunker down. You take nothing for granted. You’re worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but that’s immaterial, as you would say in court. You log the hours. You do the work. You leave nothing to chance. You hear what they say about you — nobody ever claimed you had thick skin. “He feels the sting,” confirms Kurt Schmoke, the former Baltimore mayor. But it’s the price you decided to pay in order to become who you are, the deal that you made with yourself.
And if there’s anything you respect, it’s a man who honors a deal.
“You live life with the cards that were dealt you,” D’Alesandro says with a shrug. “And Pete dealt his own hand.”
What matters most to Peter Angelos? Those close to you don’t hesitate. It’s the Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos, P.C., first, and everything else after. The firm you started in 1961 isn’t just your place of business, it defines you. “He’s a lawyer,” says MacPhail, who ran the Orioles’ baseball operations from 2007 to 2011, “who happens to own a baseball team.”
That sets you apart from the dark suits who fill the seats at the owners meetings — but it’s hardly all that sets you apart. You look around at the corporate titans who have become rich by tilting the playing field and taking advantage of the working man on behalf of the moneyed interests, and you feel the bile rising. They’re fat cats, tycoons, Republicans. You’re a battler, a laborer, a Democrat. Better than they are? Smarter, more honorable, more worthy of admiration? Damn right you are.
|Angelos received an award from union leader Elmer Chatak after he refused to use replacement players during the 1994-95 strike.
It wasn’t just that Ripken’s sacred streak would end, as cynics sniped. You’d taken labor’s side against management all your life. Never had a corporate client, you like to brag. “Peter hates corporate America,” says a former associate who spent much of his adulthood working for your firm. “You hear him say it all the time. ‘Those no-good motherf-----s.’ This is a guy who wore short-sleeve shirts to work with a tie. He had his office in a blue-collar section of Baltimore. He was a peasant. A peasant who got rich. A peasant who got rich and bought a baseball team.”
A baseball team? You’re the last person anyone would have picked. Baseball is essentially frivolous, right? A glorified circus. “That’s how he’d refer to it,” says Joe Foss, who helped engineer your purchase of the team and worked as its COO until 2007. “‘It’s a carny. They’re always on the road, it’s not a normal lifestyle, you’re selling things for a few dollars here and a few dollars there. It’s a roving carnival, and all the people who work in it are beneath the dignity of an attorney.’ That’s what he’d say.”
A carnival, now owned by the most serious man they know. “He loves to laugh and have a good time,” says a member of your family. “But as relatives used to say, ‘You can’t deny this is a serious, serious guy.’ And sometimes I think he doesn’t quite get it. Even when people tell him, ‘You’re a serious f---ing guy. You gotta lighten up.’ He’ll sit back at his desk and say, ‘What are you talking about? Tell me what you mean.’ He may not see it.”
You ran for city council president and then mayor, unwinnable battles against the most popular politician in town. D’Alesandro’s father, Thomas Jr., had been mayor. His whole family was steeped in local politics. “Pete, you’re my friend. Why are you running against me?” he asked. Your response was guileless, as earnest as it comes. “Tommy, I just think I’d do a better job.”
Along the way, you came to understand what the baseball team means to a place that can’t compete on equal terms with New York or Washington or even Philadelphia or Boston, not in any way that matters. “The civic pride,” says the Red Sox’s Larry Lucchino, who owned a piece of the Orioles under Eli Jacobs in the early 1990s, until Angelos bought the team. “That Baltimore-against-the-world attitude.” From 1966 to 1983, as you came of age as a professional, the Orioles were the sport’s most successful franchise. You’d open the Sun or the News-American and see the American League standings. Baltimore was up top, New York somewhere below. Washington? Down at the bottom, and then not there at all.
You watched one out-of-town owner, Edward Bennett Williams, try to hijack the team to D.C. Under the next, Jacobs — of Newton, Mass., Yale and Wall Street — it began to crumble. When the wealthiest men in town sat on their hands following Jacobs’ bankruptcy, and a New York art dealer named Jeffrey Loria swooped in to buy the team, you were outraged. “Nobody else was at the plate,” says D’Alesandro, whose sister is House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. “Only Pete stepped up. He did it for the city.”
|Angelos, with Ripken in 2005, drew boos during a speech after Ripken broke Gehrig’s record.
A local boy who had come from the hard side of the tracks, you bought the opportunity to sit in boardrooms with the corporate leaders you had little time for. You were respected from the start, but never loved. When you gave a nationally televised speech after Ripken broke Lou Gehrig’s record, it sounded like you were trying to steal the moment. “Angelos bored on,” wrote the Sun’s Mike Littwin at the time. “It was a filibuster more than a speech. He introduced his rich friends … he patted himself on the back.” The boos cascaded.
You never apologized for anything, wouldn’t admit you were fallible, couldn’t show a vulnerable side. You’ve paid the price. “The only people who support Peter today are people whose charity he gives money to, or they have some business connection, or some need,” a local businessman with ties to baseball maintains. “And there are very few Orioles fans out there who love their owner. The team lost, that’s one reason. But he didn’t endear himself. It’s the personality of the man.”
“It’s sad,” he adds. “It sounds strange, but I feel sorry for him. I feel sorry for Peter Angelos.”
You had heard a lot about the Oriole Way. But people forget that the team had not won in a decade when you took over. The farm system had stopped producing. Talent was thin.
You’re a quick study. You pride yourself on it. How hard could it be to run a winning baseball team? You would outsmart them, outwork them, be savvier and stronger and tougher than anyone else. That’s what had made you wealthy and successful. It was the only way you knew. What difference did it make if you had never run anything bigger than a law firm?
By 1997, you had amassed the highest payroll in all of baseball. “Our payroll didn’t match our
|After last making the playoffs in 1996 (top) and ’97, the Orioles and their fans returned to the postseason in 2012 (above), thanks in part to changes that Angelos made.
You fired Johnny Oates and eventually hired Johnson, who had won in New York and Cincinnati. You sent him to the winter meetings to find a general manager. He ran into Pat Gillick, who had constructed a winner in Toronto and was serving as a consultant. Gillick wasn’t eager to start over. But he knew you would spend to get talent. He received assurances that he would be unencumbered. He signed on.
In 1996, the team was five games out in July. Gillick believed you needed to blow up the roster, dump Bobby Bonilla and David Wells because they wouldn’t be long-term Orioles anyway. You bristled. Give up? That wasn’t in your nature.
“That wouldn’t be fair to the fans of Baltimore,” you told him. “They’ve sold out the stadium for us for the rest of the year. They bought tickets with the idea that we’d try to field a contender. We’re not going to give up on them now.” Besides, who is Pat Gillick to say that this team can’t win? You called your kitchen cabinet, asking for advice. “You’ve got Gillick and [assistant general manager Kevin Malone],” hall of famer and current Orioles broadcaster Jim Palmer told you. “Ask them what they think.”
“I don’t trust them,” you replied.
“Why,” Palmer asked, “are they working for you?”
Thing is, you were right. The team caught fire, made the playoffs. You sat in your box thinking, “If I’d followed Gillick’s advice, we wouldn’t be here today.” Baseball wasn’t so different from running a law firm, it turned out. If you were smart and put in the work, if you never let yourself forget that most people are trying to take you to the bank, you did better than the so-called experts.
“He rationalized, ‘I’m better than you are. I’m smarter. Look what I’ve done. How do you think I made all this money?’” says a longtime employee who recently left your firm.
You wouldn’t trust a general manager’s opinion again for a long, long time.
Gillick departed in 1998 when his contract ended and went on to build a 116-win team in Seattle and a World Series champion in Philadelphia. By the time he left, you two were barely talking. Frank Wren, now the general manager of the first-place Braves, came and went. Then the late Syd Thrift, and the tandem of Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan, with help from Duquette.
You dealt with them all the same. A recommendation from your general manager was a starting point for a debate, not a call to action. “He’d do his homework,” Perlozzo says. “Sometimes it would turn out that it was good that we didn’t go get a certain guy. I’d say, ‘The son-of-a-gun was right.’”
|Fans have long targeted Angelos, as they did when the O’s had another losing season in 2006.
“I don’t know that Peter is necessarily the greatest negotiator in the world,” says another former Orioles executive. “The success of his asbestos suits, where he really got his first layer of wealth, did not come from negotiating technique. It came from indecision. He can’t make up his f---ing mind. He keeps thinking the other side will try to pull the wool over his eyes. In law, his inability to make decisions was seen as a delaying tactic, and he ended up with more money. That didn’t work in baseball.”
Didn’t they know who was boss, these general managers who’d come in to pitch a deal and say, “I need an answer within six hours?” You’ll give them an answer when you were good and ready. First, you cross-examined them like the top lawyer you are. Why do we want to trade Erik Bedard? Who is this prospect we’re getting in return? What makes you think he can hit in the major leagues? How good is Mike Lowell? Doesn’t Josh Beckett get hurt a lot? What would we be giving up in return? “His personality was so forceful, anyone who encountered any resistance after Gillick just backed off,” MacPhail says.
You’d win every argument, but did that mean you knew better or just that you were a better arguer? “He is, as a result of his successes, even more confident than he might otherwise be,” one longtime Orioles employee says. “He’s even more difficult to move off his pre-set positions.”
The years passed. The team kept losing. And when those Sun columnists, Eisenberg and Littwin and Rosenthal and the rest, wrote things that stung you, many of which had no basis in the facts as you knew them, you didn’t bother to explain. You stopped talking to them. They were out to get you.
At the end of MacPhail’s administration, you weren’t spending nearly as much time with the Orioles as before. By some reports, you’d go weeks without attending a game.
If so, that would hardly be unexpected. Two full-time jobs is two too many for most men in their eighties — and you weren’t going to give an inch at the law firm.
“I began to see Peter have less interest in the on-field performance,” confirmed a former confidant who worked closely with you until recently. “That turned out to be a blessing. One of the contributing factors of the rehabilitation of the team was Peter being less involved with the uniformed personnel.”
“The idea that he was a meddler was ridiculous,” says MacPhail, who took over in 2007. “It wasn’t like he was texting you wondering why a left-hander wasn’t up in the bullpen.”
“When he came to the clubhouse in New York last year during the playoffs, I didn’t even know who he was,” says Mark Reynolds, an Oriole for two full seasons who now plays for the Yankees. “I’d literally never seen him.”
By then, the woeful Orioles — a combined 391 games out of first place from 1998 to 2011, fourth- or last-place finishers every year — were becoming a playoff team with stars such as Adam Jones, Manny Machado, Chris Davis and Matt Wieters lighting up the field every night.
“There’s for all of us a learning curve,” says Lucchino. Only a fool would do the same thing for 15 years and not get the result he wanted. And though you’ve been called a lot of things, you’ve never been called a fool. “I’ve owned this thing long enough now to know what I don’t know,” you told MacPhail soon after you hired him.
It’s the kind of thing that might win you some sympathy or support, if only you’d say it so everyone could hear.
During your tenure as Orioles owner, the world changed around you. “A whole new set of challenges emerged,” Lucchino says. “A football team returned to Baltimore. A baseball team returned to Washington. He has had a lot to deal with.”
When Major League Baseball relocated Montreal’s Expos to Washington, it made one huge mistake. Commissioner Bud Selig announced that the deal was done before working out how you would be compensated for encroachment on your broadcast territory. Every franchise (other than those in existing two-team markets) has a delineated zone for unimpeded television coverage. All those Orioles fans the team had cultivated in Washington over three decades, you would get no recompense for those. But your broadcasting rights were there in black and white.
MLB underestimated you. “They thought Peter would be reasonable,” Foss says. “And Peter had absolutely no intention of being reasonable. He felt that he had a responsibility to protect the economic value of his franchise for himself and his minority owners.”
For nearly 20 years, running a baseball team like you ran your law firm exposed your weaknesses. Suddenly, it was playing to your strengths. Your attorneys gathered to explain that your position was weak, but you told them for a third time and then a fourth and a fifth what you understood, what you interpreted, what you knew. This was the case against the powerful you had been preparing for your whole life.
Going … Going … Gone:
Revolving door on the manager’s office
|Angelos’ penchant of going through managers was at times Steinbrenneresque, a stark contrast in an organization where Earl Weaver served in the position from 1968 to 1982, then again in 1985-86. Getting the hook: (top, left to right) Johnny Oates, Phil Regan, Davey Johnson (whose departure after consecutive playoff seasons still rankles fans), Ray Miller, Mike Hargrove. (Bottom, left to right) Lee Mazzilli, Sam Perlozzo, Dave Trembley, Juan Samuel and current skipper Buck Showalter.
MASN would carry both Orioles and Nationals games, giving you an unprecedented financial stake in a rival’s success. It denied the Nationals the majority of their own television revenue, thereby undermining their chances of becoming the dominant team in the Mid-Atlantic market by building a consistent winner. “People don’t realize that he probably saved the [Orioles] with that deal,” Brady Anderson says. “The team would have no chance going forward if not for that.” (See related story.)
Later, you went to court to ensure that your ownership of MASN wouldn’t even need to be shared with Comcast. That was the big win. About the same time, you hired MacPhail, with whom you had worked side by side in labor negotiations. “I don’t think he ever had to be suspicious of my goals, objectives, motivations and ability because he’d already made those judgments,” MacPhail says now. You pushed for Showalter, the baseball man you probably should have had running the team all along. When MacPhail left, you replaced him with Duquette, who hadn’t run a team for a decade but has proved to be the perfect fit.
Changes were made on other fronts. You finally resolved the spring training situation, ending uncertainly that had been affecting the entire organization, by doing a deal with Sarasota that resulted in a gorgeous new facility. You let Anderson establish a weight-training program like no other. You watched the team blossom on the field. In January, you even awarded Showalter and Duquette contract extensions, which seemed to indicate that you had realized sports and law are different worlds.
You’re a complicated man whose strengths have often impeded what you’ve tried to accomplish in baseball, but by giving your executives space to operate you’ve finally managed to succeed. Even your detractors must admit it. If you died tomorrow, the so-called Worst Owner in Baseball will have left his franchise in terrific shape.
If you died tomorrow … you’re not a religious man, but at your age who can deny that mortality is in their thoughts? With that in mind, you’ve set up a strict succession plan for what matters most. The law firm. Son Louis, 43, who by all accounts has a brilliant legal mind coupled with the ability to make small talk that you’ve never enjoyed, will take over when you’re gone. Son John, 45, has shown interest in MASN and the entertainment side, which grows to be a bigger part of the baseball business every day.
That leaves the Orioles. For a while it seemed the estate would likely sell the team after your death, which may still happen.
You’ve had minority partners since the beginning, about 10 of them now. The growth in franchise value during your tenure has made them wealthy enough to buy you out. Few investors in sports teams have been treated so well as those who cast their lot with Peter Angelos — even if the most visible of them, author Tom Clancy, refuses to speak publicly about you. “He doesn’t take a salary,” Washington-based attorney and your close friend George Stamas, who helped negotiate the initial deal to obtain the Orioles and remains one of about a dozen minority investors, says of you. “Not a dollar. I can’t think of a better testament for the man than that. He’s the best partner a person can have.”
But owning the Orioles, your sons understand, provides a platform for charity or community service that not even a billion dollars or two gives a family. Without the Orioles, Angelos is just a name on a law firm in Baltimore.
For years, you’ve been told by advisers and attorneys and even members of your family that you need to work out the inheritance. If you don’t, they say, the courts will. You hear them, but you refuse to make a move until you’re ready. Who among your heirs deserves such a bounty? Who has been dedicated enough, has worked hard enough, has proved his loyalty? You observe. You ponder. You wait. Your 84th birthday comes and goes. You’ll decide when you decide, not a moment sooner.
You can’t be rushed. You’re the boss. You’re Peter Angelos.
Bruce Schoenfeld is a writer in Colorado.