Peter Angelos' ownership of the Orioles seemed to hit a new low last fall when two well-respected candidates spurned the chance to become his top baseball executive.
Fans rolled their eyes and bit their lips when Angelos settled for Dan Duquette, who had been out of Major League Baseball for almost a decade after his demise as general manager of the Boston Red Sox.
It seemed that Angelos' Orioles, losers for 14 straight years, could only get a guy no one else wanted. Who could have guessed it was the prologue to a story of redemption for both franchise and owner?
But that's how it felt after the Orioles squeezed out a tense 3-2 playoff win over the New York Yankees Monday night before a euphoric packed house at Camden Yards. The five-game series resumes today in New York tied 1-1. An ebullient Angelos made a rare appearance in his team's clubhouse after Monday's game. "Come meet the boss," Duquette crowed as he ushered players to speak with Angelos, whom they seldom encounter.
Closer Jim Johnson gave the 83-year-old owner the game ball from his 43rd save of the season, which clinched the club's first winning season since 1997. "I don't know if he's rubbing it in or congratulating me," Angelos joked as he rounded the room, patting shoulders and telling the players to "Keep it up."
Some fans are reluctant to forgive the Orioles owner for 14 years of heartache.
But with his team winning playoff games and everyone loving the statues he commissioned to celebrate past Orioles greats, Angelos is encountering more public good will than he has in 15 years. Even past critics say this season has boosted a legacy that had soured over years of losing.
"Of course it helps his image," says Baltimore investment banker John Moag, who sparred with Angelos as former chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority. "Anytime the fans are feeling good, it rubs in all different directions, and some of that rub is going to be on the owner."
Nonetheless, Angelos has mostly chosen to remain cloistered in his downtown law office or his suite at Camden Yards, eschewing the spotlight as much as he did when his team was losing. His clubhouse appearance Monday was his first on any public stage during the playoff run, and even then, he politely declined interview requests.
"It was really spur of the moment," says Angelos' son, Louis, who was by his side. "It was such a great night all-around. People said to him, 'Maybe you should go down.' Buck [Showalter] has always told him to come on down whenever the mood strikes you. Surprisingly, he said, 'Let's go.' "
Louis Angelos says the season has been as magical for his father and his family as for anyone, though he sees it as bigger than a story of personal redemption.
"I don't really look at that way," he says. "You know if you're in my father's position, you're going to take heat if the team loses, no matter what. We're just thrilled this could all come together for the fans, for the city, for the region. It's really turning the page."
Of losing for years, he says, "It doesn't get much lower, I have to say. Now to have this all at once, the way it's come together, it's exhilarating. It's a privilege to be part of it. … You're thrilled you could deliver that for the fans."
Friends and observers say they're not surprised that Peter Angelos has stuck to his reclusive approach. They say the lawyer in him would hate the inconsistency of stepping forward just because his team is playing well. They add that he does not want to steal attention from his players and baseball executives.
Peter Angelos did not respond to repeated requests to be interviewed. In fact, he rarely comments publicly about the Orioles unless he's releasing a prepared statement about significant news.
"He's not by nature a person who needs to stick his chest out or pat himself on the back in public," says Orioles general counsel H. Russell Smouse, one of Angelos' top legal associates. "I think he feels he's got good people running the club, and he's expressed confidence in their ability to do what needs to be done."
Angelos' son says he's particularly conscious of not interfering with the special bonds between his players and coaching staff.
"He's certainly been consistent about not wanting to intrude on what is viewed as their domain," says Louis Angelos, also an attorney at his father's law firm. "He doesn't want the spotlight and never has. He didn't in '96 or '97 either. He thought it was maybe misplaced or unnecessary."
But those who speak with Angelos regularly say he has followed every game closely and has taken immense pleasure from his team's return to winning. "He has a great smile," Smouse says. "And that smile has been in great evidence over the last few months."
Both Duquette and Showalter have praised Angelos as an encouraging presence throughout the year.
"He's very interested in the team, and I believe he takes great pride in the younger players who have developed here," Duquette says. "I can't speak for him, but I know that he's enjoyed the team being in the pennant race. You know, his focus is on the fans and the community. To the extent that we can give back to the fans and connect with the fans, I think that's very gratifying to Mr. Angelos."
Duquette describes an owner who barely resembles the man once derided for overruling his baseball executives and rashly pursuing faded free agents.
"He's been very supportive in encouraging us to find solutions," Duquette says. "That kind of environment, where it's, 'OK, we tried this, it didn't work,' to have that kind of support, it's a good thing. It's good to have that support where if things don't work out, you go try something else."
Changes at Camden Yards
As well as the 2012 season has gone on the field, the franchise's off-field moves have drawn nearly as much praise.
Camden Yards opened for its 20th anniversary with a significant facelift, including a lowered wall in rightfield and an open-air bar in centerfield that was packed on Opening Day and has remained so for much of the season. The Orioles combined with the Maryland Stadium Authority to fund the updates.
"He said it was the most special memory he could have shared with his dad," Louis Angelos says. "But he also said, 'You know, it's been a struggle for us to remain as Orioles fans.' And I said, 'I hear you. It's even more pronounced for us, because we're fans first, but we also know it's on us.'"
Louis Angelos recalls how moved he was to see Robinson accepting the honor as Boog Powell looked on with a little kid's grin and as emotion overcame the usually gruff Weaver.
"That's one of the most special moments in the history of the organization," he says.
Despite all the fun of this season, the story of Peter Angelos remains a mixed one for many Orioles fans. There's little question they have dialed down their vitriol toward the owner, but many say they have not forgiven him for the club's long downturn.
"I think with the job Buck and Dan have done, it really has put the Angelos talk on hold," says Vernon Hallis, a Carroll County geometry teacher who has loved the Orioles since he was a boy in the 1960s. "I don't hear people talking better about him. I just don't hear anybody talking about him at all."
Questions still abound for Chad Ellis, a Baltimore tavern owner who has attended almost every game in recent weeks.
"Why did this process take so long?" Ellis wonders. "How can he go from a meddling micro-manager, with no aptitude for baseball success to turning everything to gold? Are all the new personalities in the warehouse strong enough to keep him at bay? Has he changed his personal philosophy in his 80s? I don't know. The jury is still out."
Few Orioles lovers have wrestled with Angelos' legacy more than Terry Cook, a Parkville native who attended more than 30 games this year but also led a movement of disgruntled fans known as "Occupy Eutaw Street."
He started the group after Toronto Blue Jays assistant general manager Tony LaCava turned down an offer to lead the Orioles' baseball operations last fall. Arizona Diamondbacks executive Jerry Dipoto had also resisted the club's interest, taking over the Los Angeles Angels instead.
"For me, it was just the culmination of a lot of years of frustration," says Cook. "The general manager search just showed how bad things were. There are only 30 of those jobs in the world and to have two people turn it down? We had to let him know how disappointed we were as fans."
The group's logo features a despondent cartoon bird with the word "No" on his cap. For most of the year, Cook wore a t-shirt to games that said "Stop lying to us, Peter" on the back.
Starting to believe?
As the team's fortunes improved, more and more fans confronted Cook and asked why he had to be so negative. One pelted him with peanuts.
He felt torn, loving the club's magical run but remaining unconvinced that anything had really changed. "We're catching lightning in a bottle," he says. "This isn't the culmination of what's happened over the last 10 years."
Nevertheless, Cook decided to stop actively bashing Angelos around July and to shelve his t-shirt a few weeks ago. He says the discourse on his group's message board has gotten less mean.
Of Angelos, he says, "I'll worry about it in the offseason. He's almost an afterthought at this point."
Observers say it was in part a deep skepticism, developed during the Angelos era, that kept fans from packing Camden Yards until recent weeks. The club drew 2.1 million fans, the most since 2007 but still well below the totals of the early 2000s and before.
"There's been a lot of skepticism for a long time," Moag says. "But I think this team has finally made believers of us. And I expect that to spill over into next year's attendance."
Moag, who recently worked on the sale of the San Diego Padres, says the surprise season will not have much impact on the value of the Orioles, though he says sustained winning might increase the potential sale price.
The playoff run is more certain to bolster Angelos' pride, even if he would never say so publicly, says Joe Foss, the club's former chief operating officer.
"He's a very proud man who, not withstanding the views of some, always wanted to be a winner as much as any fan," says Foss, who has not remained in close contact with Angelos. "It's far better for Peter's legacy that this season happened than if it didn't happen."