Stay up to date on D.C. with our free newsletters
The Tampa Bay Whatevers completed the Orioles’ plunge to the bottom of the East over the weekend, sweeping the oldest and highest-paid team in baseball history at Camden Yards. Look for owner Peter Angelos to give Ray Miller a quick hook and throw what little talent is left in the barren farm system and a gazillion bucks at Florida to get Mike Piazza. Why? Because that’s what George Steinbrenner would do.
Since spending some of his asbestos-induced windfall to buy the O’s for $173 million in 1993, Angelos has done a whole lot to foster comparisons to Steinbrenner. The sorry dealings he has had with Davey Johnson represent just one example of how Angelos has cribbed from the New Yorker’s how-to manual. From the chapter titled “Billy Martin”: Lure very popular ex-hometown player to manage club, micromanage him into a lather, then get irked by his popularity in spite of his stellar performance, and run him out of town. (Johnson was fired, remember, on the same day he received his Manager of the Year award.)
Steinbrenner should regard Angelos’ off-season spending spreesthe 1998 payroll is estimated at $74 millionas more flattery. Now Baltimore fans are stuck with the hardest team to root for in the American League. For years, Steinbrenner’s Yankees held that title in a death grip.
Angelos’ near-field mimicry of Steinbrenner is equally manifest away from the ballyard.
It’s in the shipyard, too: Steinbrenner got most of his bucks as a shipbuilder. So, last July, Angelos floated a portion of his asbestos money toward the purchase of a yard of his own: He took over BethShip, a Baltimore shipyard previously owned by Bethlehem Steel. The shipyards in Charm City haven’t exactly been flourishing in recent decades, so that acquisition seems a fairly overt attempt at imitation. After taking the helm of BethShip, Angelos gave the dockworkers a raise of 5 cents per hour, then cut their overtime pay.
And at the race track. Steinbrenner’s always been a fan of the ponies and has owned top-notch thoroughbreds. One of his horses, Concerto, ran in last year’s Preakness. Now, Angelos has formed a racing enterprise, Marathon Farms, and, just as he loads the O’s roster with the costliest free agents on the market, he also fills his stables with high-dollar Kentucky-breds.
Over the weekend, a Marathon Farms animal, Spartan Cat, was entered in the Preakness. Bettors rated Spartan Cat a 99-1 longshot, meaning few people other than the owner thought he belonged in the big race. Still, the entryMarathon Farms’ first foray into racing’s major leaguesgave Angelos free rein to horse around on the hoity-toity side of the Pimlico infield all day, the same terrain Steinbrenner trod last year.
Angelos knows how to buy influence like the Yankee boss, too. A lot about Steinbrenner’s affinity for the political arena is a matter of public record: He was convicted in the 1970s of making felonious contributions to the Republican Party during the Nixon administration.
Angelos earmarks his checks for the other side of the aisle, but his political donations are coming under scrutiny. In April 1996, Al Gore reportedly rang up Angelos and requested a mere $50,000 donation for his party; Angelos forked over $100,000 to the Democratic National Committee just one month later. Investigators started looking into how much asbestos money was soft and how much was hard and fast. (Individuals are barred by federal law from contributing more than $20,000 in hard money to a single national political committee.)
The Democrats deserve generosity from Angelos. His team’s relationship with the administration of Gov. Parris Glendening has been unbelievably fruitful. All the public monies that went into the construction of Oriole Park are nothing compared with the payday Angelos will get courtesy of the close state ties.
In 1996, those ties were apparently strong enough to convince the state to hand Angelos’ law firm Maryland’s
$13 billion case against Big Tobacco. The attorney general of Maryland, in response to criticism, suggested that the firm had put together the best package, but cynics wonder whether Angelos’ franchise status with the state officials wasn’t the decisive part.
Even for a free agent like Angelos, it’s a sweet deal. The attorney was told he could keep 25 cents of every dollar he smoked out of the cigarette manufacturers. Now that the defendants have begun opening their checkbook to any and all plaintiffs, Angelos stands to really cash in. If cases in other states are any indication, Maryland’s take in a settlement of its tobacco case could go as high as $4 billion.
That means Angelos, without so much as an opening argument if the case settles, may enjoy one of the few billion-dollar billings in legal historya sum that would dwarf even his nine-figure asbestos payout. (At least he cobbled together that case himself.) Angelos agreed last month to cut his take to just 12.5 percent of the total tobacco settlement, but only after lawmakers in Annapolis agreed to amend state law to, as the Washington Post put it, “allow him to prove his case without bringing smoking victims to the stand and without having to answer arguments that they contributed to their illnesses by choosing to smoke.”
If everything goes as planned, the interest on Angelos’ cut of the tobacco take will be enough to subsidize the Orioles’ bloated payroll. That purse should allow him to acquire even more downtown properties and further his quest to become, as one Charm City writer put it, “the closest thing Baltimore has to a full-fledged baron.”
But for all their power, barons aren’t easy to pull for. Their billions usually come with some resentments attached, and when the guy with all the money is a jerk to boot, well, it can get pretty lonely at the top. Baltimore’s lunch-bucket sensibilities and Angelos’ champagne tastes do not make for a good match, especially when the O’s are stinking it up.
Steinbrenner has become almost cuddly over timealthough he offered to go a few rounds with his understudy after their teams brawled in the Bronx Tuesday night. Seinfeld’s running mockery, even without the cooperation of the butt of the joke, has surely softened his image. (Maybe the writers of Homicide could create an Angelos character.) But the fact that his Yankees won a World Series just two years agotheir third title under Steinbrennerand will win another one this season is far more important.
Angelos, for all his aping of Steinbrenner, still hasn’t brought a team to the World Series. To fans, all the shipyards and horses and politicians and players his money can buy don’t mean a thing if he ain’t got that ring. Angelos will watch the Yankees’ pennant run from the cellar of the division, hearing the calls for his head grow louder and louder, and maybe he’ll learn something Steinbrenner learned a decade ago: Nobody likes a losing tyrant.Dave McKenna