Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What happened to the Baltimore Orioles? (Hint: Another bad lawyer.)

The Twins beat the Baltimore Orioles tonight, 2-1, which made me a little bit nostalgic for the years I spent in Washington, D.C., and it made me sad all over again for Orioles fans. A quick history lesson:

For the better part of 25 years - from 1960 to 1985 - the Baltimore Orioles were one of the finest franchises in baseball. Other teams wanted to play "The Oriole Way," which meant good pitching, great fielding, flawless execution of fundametals and winning. In 1960 the Orioles won 89 games, their first winning season in 15 years. Over the next 25 seasons, they had just three losing years. They won over 100 games five times, won 90 or more in 11 other seasons and captured seven division championships, six pennants and three World Series championships.

They were the team of Brooks Robinson, (left) the best 3rd baseman ever. They were the team of Frank Robinson and Boog Powell and Mark Belanger. They had the only pitching staff with four 20-game winners (Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson, 1971) and when their first generations of stars moved along, in came superstars like Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken (below). In addition to breaking Lou Gehrig's "ironman" record, Ripken may be the classiest person ever to wear a major-league uniform.

They played in front of fun, knowledgable fans. Baltimore in the '60s and '70s was a blue-collar, working man's town and the team reflected the city's personality. You worked hard, minded your own business, did things right and good things would happen. Their stadium - a neighborhood ballpark called Memorial Stadium and pictured below - symbolized the city, the team and their fans.

In the mid-80s, the Orioles became my "home team" when I moved to D.C. Over four seasons, I probably saw 50 or 60 games there, and I loved it. We'd drive up the freeway from D.C., get on some side streets, slip past Johns Hopkins University and start looking for on-street parking in the neighborhood. If I had to be away from the Minnesota Twins, I felt lucky to be able to watch a great franchise as a substitute.

In 1992, the Orioles moved out of Memorial Stadium and into Camden Yards, which was an instant hit. It was the first of the new generation of "retro" ballparks and it was very well done. But in 1993, things started to go awry, and like so many unfortunate things in life, it can be traced back to a lawyer.

Peter Angelos started as a union lawyer, then focused on class-action lawsuits, and made a boatload of money. Attacking businesses, he reportedly once made $100 million on a single case. And with these ill-gotten gains, he was able to buy the Orioles in 1993.

Most owners think they know something about baseball, but Angelos REALLY thought he was full of wisdom. He began micromanaging the front office, throwing big money at bad free agents, forcing poor trades and generally screwing things up.

Angelos' meddling set the club on the path to mediocrity, and the end of "The Oriole Way." The last winning season they had was 1997. In the last eight seasons, their BEST finish was 21 games out of first place. They have failed to win more than 70 games in their last three seasons, and attendance at Camden Yards - which peaked at 3.7 million in the 1990s - dropped to under two million last year.

In May of this year, a Sports Illustrated story named Angelos one of the five worst owners in baseball. His Orioles have become a punching bag for the Yankees and Red Sox, serving the same purpose in the Eastern Division as the Washington Generals served for the Harlem Globetrotters.

It's sad, because the decline of the Orioles matches the decline of Baltimore. The industries that employed the blue-collar workers have fled, and the town's biggest claim to fame is as the setting for the drug-ravaged, corruption-plagued inner city portrayed in the TV series The Wire.

I can't imagine what Brooksie and Boog and Eddie and Cal feel today when they think about the Orioles, but it can't be good. And every time I see the "O's" it makes me a little sad.


  1. Tim, I loved this article. I grew up four blocks from Memorial Stadium, went to almost all home games the early 80's. In 1983 the Orioles were the best, I could not wait for the 1984 season to begin and start the road to another World Championship for Baltimore. Little did I know then we would have to wait until the turn of the century and it would be in football and even more sadly NOT the Baltimore Colts.

  2. Thanks for the feedback. I was there for the 1987 through 1990 seasons, and Memorial Stadium was a really special place, with fantastic fans.