New Owner, New Optimism : Commitment to Make Orioles a Winner Could Mean Merriment in Maryland

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The impact on the Baltimore Orioles of the free-agent spending spree by new owner Peter Angelos is best measured, perhaps, in the clubhouse corner occupied here by Cal Ripken Jr.

The Oriole shortstop will start the 1994 season only 233 games shy of Lou Gehrig's record streak, but it's as if that has become a forgotten subject.

"I've always tried to downplay the streak, but I haven't even had to work at that this spring," Ripken said.

"It's very refreshing. The focus has been on the team, and that's the way it should be."

The team?

"We don't need any surprises to win," Manager John Oates said.

"We don't need two or three guys having career years. We only need them to do what they do normally."

Oates isn't predicting an American League East title. He is only saying the Orioles have the capability in one of the toughest and most competitive of the realigned divisions.

"I don't want our players or fans thinking there's a correlation between money spent and games won," he said.

"We obviously have a better chance now, but you still have to do it between the lines."

Angelos put it on the line when it counted.

A hometown attorney who amassed a fortune litigating lawsuits on behalf of workers exposed to asbestos, he saved the Orioles from absentee ownership when creditors and the courts forced a bankrupt Eli Jacobs to auction the club last October.

Angelos and his group, which includes novelist Tom Clancy, tennis player Pam Shriver and sportscaster Jim McKay, paid a record $173 million for the team, then committed $42.85 million to free agents Rafael Palmeiro, Chris Sabo, Sid Fernandez and Lee Smith.

That commitment doesn't include the three-year, $10.25-million contract given outfielder Brady Anderson, the $1.8 million used to retain designated hitter Harold Baines, or the more modest signings of three other free agents, relief pitcher Mark Eichhorn, infielder Rene Gonzales and outfielder Henry Cotto.

While baseball's owners are trying to negotiate a salary cap with the players union, the Baltimore payroll has risen from $28 million to more than $40 million, with the owner willing to spend more.

"We'll do what we need to do," Angelos said. "I mean, we'd like to stay within certain parameters at this point, but we're not going to be restricted by arbitrary limitations.

"If we can take an extra step to make the Orioles as competitive as possible, we're not going to back off and say, 'We have a budget and we have to stick to it.' That's what was happening to the club before, but it's not our intent to shrink from those opportunities."

To Angelos, who put up more than $40 million of the purchase price, or about $20 million more than Clancy, the next-largest of the 20 investors, the new approach is a pay-back for fan support at Camden Yards.

The Orioles have drawn 3.5 million and 3.6 million in their two seasons at Camden Yards, selling out 71 of 80 dates last year, and expect to draw 3.8 million in '94.

With an estimated net profit of between $25 million and $30 million in each of the last two years, $173 million seems to be a long-term bargain.

"Our fan support is beyond words," Angelos said. "If we had enough seats, we'd surpass every other club.

"Our expenditures were long overdue in light of the fan support and rather meager compared to the expenditures of other clubs over the years.

"We felt we had some catching up to do, that the previous ownership had not done all it could to repay the fans, to give them what they deserve.

"We're going to operate major league baseball in Maryland in a different way. We're committed to making the club as competitive as possible, and that's what we're doing."

The Orioles finished third in each of their first two years at Camden Yards, winning 89 and 85 games, respectively.

They were still alive in September of last season despite losing the injured Mike Mussina, Mike Devereaux and Gregg Olson, but their only late-season pickup was the 37-year-old Lonnie Smith, who batted .208 in 24 at-bats. Not exactly Fred McGriff or Rickey Henderson.

"That's what I'm talking about," Angelos said. "You had a club in the race, but management didn't respond. The fans deserved more."

The new owner huddled with Oates and General Manager Roland Hemond soon after taking over and basically said, "What do you want? What do you need?"

Or as Hemond put it: "He said he wanted to bring a championship to Baltimore, and he's backed it up. I mean, it was the ideal time to make moves because we were relatively close. We were adding to a foundation and not rebuilding."

The primary need, Oates and Hemond agreed, was greater production at the infield corners.

Sabo, who drove in 82 runs for the Cincinnati Reds last season,

ultimately rejected a multiyear offer by the New York Mets to accept a one-year, $2-million contract with the Orioles "because they give me a better chance to win immediately."

Palmeiro, who had 37 homers and drove in 105 runs with the Texas Rangers, agreed to a five-year, $30.35-million contract with the Orioles after Angelos had pulled the club out of negotiations with Will Clark.

Clark then signed quickly with the Rangers, which left Palmeiro embittered at both Clark and his former team and basically with no other offer than a two-year, $10-million bid from the Mets when Angelos topped it significantly.

"There was no way of really knowing if he had other offers," Hemond said.

"We knew he was talking to several teams and faced the risk of coming up empty, had he signed with one of them. Peter said, 'Let's go. Let's get him,' and you have to admire that."

It's believed, however, that Hemond and others in the baseball end of the Orioles' operation would have preferred Clark, although Hemond now says Palmeiro was always their No. 1 objective and they pursued Clark only because they were certain Palmeiro would return to Texas.

Angelos put it another way, saying he pulled out of the Clark talks because he wasn't going to pay $30 million to a player whose statistics and availability had diminished over the last two years because of injury.

"If the past is prologue, there was reason to question Will's consistent availability on a long-term basis," Angelos said. "I also liked Palmeiro's statistics better. You're comparing 37 home runs to 14 (for Clark).

"The one guy seemed to be improving while the other was declining."

Even now, almost six months later, Palmeiro can still fill a notebook with his complaints about how the Rangers handled his contract talks and how Clark slipped in behind him.

Palmeiro clearly wanted to stay in Texas, where he is building a multimillion-dollar house, and it's as if $30.35 million can't erase the hurt, although he remembers to preface it by saying he has the deal he wanted with a club that has a chance to win.

"I'm happy here," Palmeiro insists. "Potentially, we have the best offense in the league. The owner promised he'd get players, and he has."

The lineup is imposing: Anderson, center field; Devereaux, right field; Palmeiro, first base; Ripken, shortstop; Baines, DH; Chris Hoiles, catcher; Sabo, third base; Mark McLemore, second base; Jeff Hammonds, left field.

"The offense has the capability of making up for (pitching) mistakes, picking up the slack if need be," coach Davey Lopes said, expressing a thought Oates would rather not contemplate.

"I don't want the hitters to start off with that frame of mind because it puts that much more pressure on them," the manager said while acknowledging that pitching depth is his major concern.

"We need our horses to take the ball on a regular turn," he said, referring to Mussina, Ben McDonald, Jamie Moyer and Fernandez, who got a three-year, $9-million contract and might sit out most of April because of shoulder tendinitis.

The limited pitching market prompted Angelos and the Orioles to ignore the injury risk with Fernandez while citing it in their approach to Clark and Olson, the longtime closer who sat out 51 late-season games because of an elbow injury and was allowed to join the Atlanta Braves as a free agent. He was replaced in Baltimore by Smith, 37, who received a one-year, $1.5-million contract.

Where does Angelos stop and his career baseball people begin?

"I'll always be involved in the major financial decisions, but once the important phase of improving the team is completed I'd expect to have minimum involvement," he said. "I don't need another job, that's a certainty."

The son of a Greek immigrant and tavern owner, Angelos grew up in a lower-to-middle-class section of East Baltimore. He attended Baltimore Law School at night, served one term as a city councilman and was defeated in a 1967 bid for mayor while running on the city's first biracial ticket.

He has nine law offices in five states and has reportedly won damages or negotiated settlements totaling more than $1 billion in the last 15 years.

He is also heavily involved in the bid to move the Rams to Baltimore, is considering a November bid for governor and is making changes at Camden Yards, on and off the field.

He is correcting sight lines in the left-field corner by installing swivel seats. He is returning some of the best box seats, which Jacobs had retained for his closest friends, to season-ticket holders. He plans to add 1,500 seats next year for free use by youth groups.

Said Lopes: "The man has sent a clear and succinct message that he'll do everything he can to bring a winner to Baltimore. All you can ask of an owner is that he's committed to giving you the personnel to win, and he has."

Time will tell if the Orioles can end the Toronto Blue Jays' three-year reign in the East, hold off the improved New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, and contain the high-scoring Detroit Tigers.

Ripken, who hasn't played for a division winner since 1983, looks at the improvement of his hometown team in more ways than one.

"As an Oriole fan and Baltimore resident all my life, it's very exciting to see the addition of players like Palmeiro, Sabo and Fernandez to a team that was already very competitive, but as a player I try to curb some of that excitement," he said.

"There's no secret formula for winning a pennant, or everyone would have it. We have to keep all of this in perspective, stay focused and go about our job day to day.

"It is comforting, however, to know you have the support of the owner. There are a lot of places where that doesn't seem to be the case--and there have been times that it wasn't here."

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