When it truly mattered, Gov. Wes Moore sat himself on the right side of the negotiation table.
We’ll all remember two distinct images from the Great Orioles Lease Saga of 2023, both with Moore front and center. The difference between them spells out how much the first-year elected official evolved in just three months.
In September, Moore was hopping with raised arms in the owner’s suite at Camden Yards, with team chairman and CEO John Angelos clapping just over his shoulder — celebrating a deal that did not actually have any binding effect.
By December, Moore had traded in his bright orange T-shirt for a more stately suit, albeit one with an orange Orioles-themed tie. He was planted at a boardroom table in the B&O Warehouse between state Treasurer Dereck Davis and state Comptroller Brooke Lierman — still flashing a million-dollar smile, but with the weariness of a runner staggering to the end of a marathon.
During the all-important Board of Public Works vote to approve one of Moore’s keystone promises to extend the Camden Yards lease, Davis teasingly hesitated. Moore laughed, but added: “I can’t take these kinds of jokes.”
The exhausted shake of Moore’s head showed how hard-won the deal was, and hopefully the political wisdom that came with it.
Moore seemingly learned who his allies were in the struggle to find a good deal for Maryland taxpayers, and not merely the billionaire with whom he had a cordial relationship. After a year in which Moore took great pains to be seen alongside Angelos — going to Atlanta on a stadium tour, doing a stint as Mr. Splash in the Bird Bath section — the team CEO could not be bothered to show up to his own lease extension on Monday, even though it is the most important off-the-field development that has happened to his franchise this year.
You could convincingly argue The Bird mascot was one of the most important Orioles officials to attend the proceedings, which took place in the building that houses all the team offices.
The real negotiations are just warming up. The Orioles are guaranteed to be in Baltimore through at least 2038, which is a weight off of fans’ shoulders. But the critical piece that Angelos has fought for — the right to develop adjacent public lots and potentially mint money — will play out over the next four years.
Beyond the document itself which spells out the team’s rights to negotiate for the ground lease, Orioles executive vice president and chief operating officer Greg Bader set the stage for their argument in the Board of Public Works meeting: “The development itself will bring thousands of jobs to the region,” he said of development rights that are, for now, still hypothetical. If we take Angelos’ absence to mean something, it might be that he’s holding off celebrating until the piece of the deal he cares about most is done.
With the help of other public officials, Moore developed skeptical posturing that he probably should have held all along.
There’s certainly been a shift in messaging: As recently as Nov. 29, Moore told reporters his objectives were to keep the Orioles long term, to create winners on and off the field, and to be proper stewards of the taxpayers’ money — in that order. But as of Monday, Moore said looking out for the taxpayers was his first priority, and included in a post on X (formerly Twitter): “This is a deal that puts the Maryland taxpayer first …”
No doubt Lierman, Davis and Senate President Bill Ferguson — who have the political muscle to make or break deals of this scale — helped shape Moore’s pivot. The Banner reported earlier this month that Ferguson’s objections snagged a tentative agreement, forcing the state and the Orioles back to the negotiating table.
During an otherwise congratulatory press conference, Lierman (a dyed-in-the-wool O’s fan) acknowledged her determination to pore the fine print had likely stalled the process. But she also delivered one of the most defiant, resounding lines of the day: “I may love our players, but the negotiation was not with them. It was with an owner and an institution. And I am here not to be a rubber stamp for John Angelos or for Gov. Moore, but to bring my own keen sense of what is good for our state, for our taxpayers and for my adopted hometown of Baltimore.”
To a charismatic deal-maker from the private sector like Moore, the scrutiny he faced from his colleagues probably seared like a migraine. The assembled officials acknowledged the difficulty of bringing a deal to reality. Moore called the process a “bear.” Lierman called it a “slog.” Maryland Stadium Authority chairman Craig Thompson hinted at the “tough questions” from state officials who helped mold the finished agreement in the bottom of the ninth, as it were.
Even though fans hoped for definitive resolution months ago (myself included), we’re likely better served for the labor pains. It’s not just the current taxpayers who are on the hook for the $600 million in bonds and whatever development deal comes next, but their children, and perhaps their children’s children.
Recall that the original reported terms of the ground lease were $94 million for 99 years — a pittance that could have sold out Baltimore’s future generations. It seems unlikely, with the shift in tone, that Angelos will get a deal quite that sweet now.
It was striking to see a small degree of remorse from Moore on that now infamous scoreboard celebration. On the one hand, he said there may never have been a lease agreement without a memorandum of understanding, which is what the deal he and Angelos were cheering turned out to be. On the other hand, he acknowledged that people might have gotten the wrong idea about how much hammering remained.
“I did not want people to believe that there wasn’t more work that needed to be done,” Moore said. “A significant amount of work went into getting us to that point of having guidelines and an MOU and the Orioles committing to be here for the long term. A significant amount of work. But also we wanted to be clear that there was more work that needed to be done.”
If it wasn’t clear then, the untold work on the deal was evident this week as Moore put pen to actual, meaningful paper, ensuring at least 15 years of security for Baltimore’s baseball team. He knows there’s a lot more bureaucratic processes ahead — public input, Maryland Stadium Authority oversight and approval, legislative votes — that will determine if that extends to 30 years, which would give the Orioles a century of history in this city.
A cadre of veteran public officials stood at his back as Moore signed the thick stack of paperwork. Sitting to his right, Davis had one more quip: “I can sign your signature if you want, governor.”
Moore laughed. “At this point, have at it, man,” he said. “Have at it.”
It seems Moore has learned a lesson straight from the baseball diamond — whether on the field or off, it takes a team to win.