You’d think the owner of a baseball team that just won 101 games would be enjoying at least a brief period of grace.
But, with a long-term lease deal getting snagged yet again, John Angelos is feeling the heat. Orioles fans are disgruntled enough to cross their fingers for a new owner to sweep through and take over just in time for the holidays.
On Thursday, Bloomberg News created quite a stir when it reported billionaire and Baltimore native David Rubenstein is “in talks” to buy the Orioles. Although the report hasn’t been confirmed by any other outlet, the rumor had a very real effect. The Banner reported that Angelos had to call Gov. Wes Moore, the chief negotiator on a long-term deal for Camden Yards, to assure him his family wasn’t selling the team.
That phone call, along with several key timing issues, is good reason to think Angelos, 56, and his family won’t try to sell the team soon. But that didn’t stop the idea from running wild among fans, who are clearly growing impatient with key aspects of his stewardship.
The hang-up to the deal is directly related to fans’ biggest beef with Angelos: his unwillingness to spend. Angelos’ infamous interview this summer with The New York Times nakedly revealed concerns about spending on long-term deals for stars, and he floated the idea of passing the cost on to the fans by dramatically raising ticket prices. That’s news no fan wants to hear, especially when the team looks primed to contend for years to come.
His strategy to alleviate this apparent financial strain is to secure development rights in the Orioles’ next lease. The September memorandum of understanding laid out the plan for a 99-year “ground lease” that will cost the O’s $94 million, quite a bargain when you factor in the inflation over the next century. Angelos could develop on properties around Camden Yards, or perhaps flip the rights to a developer — either option figures to be extremely profitable.
At least one key lawmaker, Senate President Bill Ferguson, has understandable skepticism about the development rights and how sweet the deal appears for the Orioles. But it also appears that no deal is getting done without development rights, a sticking point for the Angelos camp. Before the latest deal was held up by Ferguson’s objections, the state and the Orioles had given themselves what amounted to an extension to figure out the terms of the ground lease and four years to get the proper approvals.
If $600 million in state funds to revamp Camden Yards was enough, Angelos would have signed a lease already — just as the Ravens did. Instead, he brokered a deal that could have lasted only 10 years if development fell through.
We don’t know what Rubenstein would be like as a team owner. He told CNBC last year that he feels like one of the few people in private equity who doesn’t own a sports team, saying, “All my friends have bought sports teams.” (Oh, to be a part of that social set!)
But, as an avatar, Rubenstein represents several qualities that fans find appealing. He’s successful outside baseball, he’s extraordinarily wealthy (worth $3.6 billion according to Forbes) and he has hometown ties. Rubenstein’s profile fits what we’ve come to see as the modern sports team owner — think Josh Harris or Steve Cohen — who can spend without worrying too much about the bottom line.
The fantasy of Rubenstein might be more appealing than Rubenstein actually is; after all, we only get to know owners after a few years of running a team. But it’s clear Angelos’ struggles in the last year have fueled the sense of escapism. Angelos orchestrated the hiring of general manager Mike Elias and gave him the time and resources to work through a methodical rebuild, yet many fans remain convinced he won’t do what it takes to sustain a championship-level team — in part due to his own words.
The latest roadblock in a tortured stadium lease process is unfortunately keeping with the pattern that has emerged: Angelos and Moore offering upbeat messaging about progress but very little meaningful development. Now state officials are skeptical that a deal can be struck by the Dec. 31 deadline, which could lead to a short-term extension that will be politically unpopular — especially since Moore and Angelos already celebrated a nonbinding MOU on the Camden Yards jumbotron, implying they were further along than they were.
As Angelos blows through more deadlines (including the ones he set for himself) and as the Orioles see the AL East making big moves to ratchet up the competition, you can sense the swelling urge to fantasize about a new owner without Angelos’ baggage.
Would Rubenstein (or an owner like Rubenstein) spend more on players? Would a new owner help grease the wheels on a deal that keeps the Orioles in Baltimore? Whether that’s realistic or not, the what-ifs of it all are more appealing with every day we go without a new lease.
Without knowing Rubenstein’s intentions, it’s impossible to say what he would be like as an owner. But the chaos of the stadium lease saga, and Angelos’ involvement, fuels rampant speculation that maybe the grass is actually greener on the other side.