It’s hard to imagine a worse week, at least publicly, for Orioles CEO John Angelos, given all the criticism coming his way.
Broadcaster Kevin Brown was removed from the MASN booth after stating a fact about the Orioles to illustrate how much they’ve improved from past seasons. The catch? That time Brown referred to when the Orioles spent several seasons as one of the game’s worst teams came on Angelos’ watch. Brown returned to the booth Friday, days after overwhelming public support and chants of “Free Kevin Brown.”
The turnaround that Brown referenced that night wasn’t an accident. Angelos chose Mike Elias to lead baseball operations nearly five years ago and, while clearly constraining him from a budgetary standpoint, has mostly allowed him to operate as he sees fit without ownership interference. That’s an aspect of management in which Angelos can confidently say he’s outdone his father, Peter. It has undeniably worked out for the Orioles, owners of the AL’s best record.
But as controversy and contention envelope both the team-owned MASN operation and ongoing lease negotiations with the state over the team’s occupancy of Camden Yards, the dichotomy over how he has let baseball operations have relative autonomy when his own personal whims and fancies are so apparent in everything else the organization does stands in stark contrast.
It’s worked on the baseball side. It probably would elsewhere too.
When Angelos spoke in spring training, he said his responsibilities were: “First, I have to do the concerts; then we have to do the [public-private partnership].” Everyone knows the outsize role musical performances have had at Camden Yards in recent years. The big shows have been well received, the postgame concerts fun and the small-time acts precisely that. The PPP pursuit seems equal parts painful, petulant and preposterous in scope.
Who is the Elias-type taking charge of the rest of these things? I don’t know if Elias ever had to explain to a frustrated Angelos why he traded Mike Yastzremski in the spring of 2019, or why the selections of Heston Kjerstad and Colton Cowser weren’t well received, or why the team needed so many player development staffers. Such meddling never got back to me, at least. All I ever heard was the occasional complaint about the lack of money available, be it for hiring more staff or bringing in better players, though Elias has frequently said publicly that baseball operations has all the resources it needs. He said as much as recently as this month‘s trade deadline.
Baseball operations has made it work anyway. So, I’m sure, have many other aspects of the Orioles organization, at least to the extent possible. It just feels like those initial fears from the lean years have been turned on their head. Imagine how dire this would feel with even a middling product on the field?
The bad-times Orioles had their fair share of controversies to weather. Most were related to baseball decisions — trading away good players, letting go of staff, etc. Now the distractions are nowhere near the field. They are in the broadcast booth and in the biggest venue of them all: the team’s lease negotiations.
Those baseball moves were made under Angelos’ watch, albeit by Elias, and even if there was a long-term goal of a better baseball team in mind they served ownership’s parsimonious plans at the time. Perhaps those same motivations — not spending the team’s money but taxpayer money to fund commercial development — will produce an attractive product down the line, when whatever version of the reimagined Camden Yards complex the state is willing to pay for comes to fruition.
Elias and company’s track record suggested their part of the Orioles’ turnaround would be a success. It’s not as if there weren’t equivalents elsewhere in the organization in the recent past either.
John Vidalin was hired in July 2018 as chief of business operations, and Angelos touted in a statement that his “senior executive experience working for some of the most iconic sports team brands and most-respected organizations across the world’s top sports leagues make him the ideal choice to oversee our talented business division in further developing our Orioles and Oriole Park brands in the years to come.” Vidalin wasn’t even listed in the Orioles’ 2019 media guide and went back to work for the Miami Heat within a year.
The Heat remain an iconic sports team brand. Little has changed about the Orioles since then, outside the fact that a very bad baseball team is good again because of autonomy given in that space. The process hasn’t been for everyone. Years of investment in analytics and player development at the expense of a competitive major league team had an alienating effect for many.
It aligned with my own views on best practices in the sport, and I was grateful to have a front-row seat to the processes in place to help make this turnaround possible. I also knew it was just that, a process, and always wondered whether slow progress on the major league side would mean the rebuilding plan would take the blame for empty seats and a lack of revenue and ideas on the business side.
The arrival of Adley Rutschman in the majors nearly 15 months ago sparked an unprecedented turnaround — the Orioles have won over 58% of their games since his debut — and effectively ended the possibility of that.
It’s a good thing. Winning baseball has drawn back fans in a way that several seasons of trying to promote baseball’s best ballpark — one the owner believes needs nearly a billion dollars in state money for upgrades and surrounding amenities — and musical promotions never could.
It turns out there was nothing to be afraid of about baseball operations taking the fall for shortcomings elsewhere. They’re the shield now and, if anyone is looking for one, maybe a model for how to get out of this mess.