Is Winning in 2008 Bad for the Baltimore Orioles?

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Is Winning in 2008 Bad for the Baltimore Orioles?

At 5-1 the Baltimore Orioles are the class of the American League one week into the 2008 season.  Maybe some of that ‘March Madness’ spilled over into April. 

The O’s have used the classic combination of defense (only two errors), a solid bullpen (0.84 bullpen ERA), and clutch hitting (three late-inning comebacks) to win five straight after falling on Opening Day.

This is good news for Orioles fans, right?

Well, kind of.  This high—albeit likely short-lived—level of success is exciting.  Watching the O’s win on the field has naturally brought joy to O’s fans. 

It’s the impact of wins on the franchise and its owner, Peter Angelos, which is causing some in Baltimore to worry.

Here’s the rub. 

Every Orioles win distracts fans and the media from focusing on the way Angelos has wrecked a once-proud franchise. 

And without the scrutiny from fans and the media he now faces, every win increases the temptation for Angelos to abandon his newfound restraint—and the rebuilding project.  

Only during the Angelos era are wins not cause for pure, unblemished joy.  The fact that winning doesn’t elicit unadulterated joy is a powerful testament to the backwards manner in which Angelos and his camarilla run the organization. 

The problem is that winning in 2008, when no one expects them to, deflects attention from the disgraceful way Angelos has operated the O’s. 

Angelos’ recent concession to give President of Baseball Operations Andy MacPhail full autonomy was a critical step in the owner’s maturation. 

The rebuilding process puts the franchise—and therefore Angelos—out in the open, subject to ridicule for presumably being one of baseball’s worst teams in 2008. 

His acknowledgement of the need to truly rebuild—and leave the decisions to a baseball man—show that the owner is indeed willing to take the criticism for his team’s on-field failures, at least with the goal of drastically improving in 2009 and beyond. 

To fully appreciate the importance of Angelos’ readiness to indirectly admit the need for a change in the way he runs the organization, one must first understand the way he has chronically escaped criticism in the past. 

For years, Angelos’ mostly inept handling of the franchise has been hidden to the majority of people who follow the Orioles. 

Angelos purchased the Orioles in 1993 and basked in the glow of Camden Yards, the team’s revolutionary stadium built the previous year.  At the time the Orioles were the competitive, wildly popular in both the Baltimore and D.C. areas, and had one of the game’s most beloved players in Cal Ripken Jr.

With solid play, Ripken, and Camden Yards to focus on, O’s fans gave Angelos a pass for his early missteps.  Moves such as instructing manager Johnny Oates to play third baseman Leo Gomez over Chris Sabo and hiring Phil Reagan as the manager over Davey Johnson were overlooked. 

The 1994 strike and its fallout then understandably captured the attention of the media and fans.

When baseball resumed in 1995, O’s fans were still focused on the novelty of Camden Yards, the fallout from the strike, and Ripken’s streak.  In addition, the Orioles were coming off of three straight winning seasons. 

With these issues on the minds of fans, Angelos’ mid-90’s mistakes went largely unnoticed, too. 

Looking back, one can note his dreadfully long speech during Ripken’s record-breaking 2,131st game and overruling of GM Pat Gillick’s efforts to trade OF/3B Bobby Bonilla and SP David Wells as major problems that did not receive their fair share of criticism.

Other mid-90s transgressions included forcing popular broadcaster Jon Miller, AL Manager of the Year Davey Johnson, and respected GM Pat Gillick to leave town in light of personal issues with all three men. 

Once again, Angelos allowed self-centered interests to supersede those of the team.

And while the Miller, Johnson, and Gillick episodes did receive criticism from the fans and media, the Orioles on-field success proved a distraction and limited the damage. 

Likewise, the residual impact of the successful ’96 and ’97 seasons, which kept fans’ hopes inflated throughout the late ‘90s and early 2000s, took attention off of Angelos for his blunders during that era.

In 1999, Angelos fired GM Frank Wren, and subsequently issued a press release noting Wren’s refusal to hold a charter plane for a stuck-in-traffic Ripken as a key reason for his dismissal. 

He continued his trend of not only forcing out but disparaging respected professionals when he low-balled ace SP Mike Mussina following the 2000 season, leading the team’s best pitcher to sign with the Yankees.

While these issues garnered attention in the Baltimore area, most fans were again distracted by other baseball events.  Barry Bonds’ HR chase, Cal Ripken’s retirement, and the breaking of the steroids saga limited the attention given to Angelos’ gaffes. 

Steroids clouded the ability of Orioles fans to clearly see Angelos’ work for the last few years. 

First baseman Rafael Palmeiro, RP Jason Grimsley, SS Miguel Tejada, OF Larry Bigbie, 2B Brian Roberts, and others all did their part to take the attention of baseball fans away from Angelos.  In addition, the Nationals 2005 rebirth in D.C. provided another distraction.

In 2008, though, Angelos has nowhere to run and no distractions behind which to hide. 

Baseball fans are sick of hearing about steroids.  The Nationals are old news.  Even Brian Roberts’ steroid admission is no longer of interest to the public. 

Finally, the peripheral airwaves surrounding the Orioles are silent.  Media coverage of the team is now focused on its seemingly legitimate rebuilding efforts. 

In fact, this current stretch of futility, starting in 2006, is the first time during his ownership that Angelos cannot divert media and fan attention from himself.

And that is why it’s somewhat troubling when the Orioles surprise the baseball world and win. 

Angelos is finally receiving some of the heat he has deserved.  Winning masks faults, and thus if the team exceeds expectations he would receive another reprieve from taking responsibility. 

What if the Orioles are around .500 by the All-Star break? 

Rather than mentioning ways the O’s owner has alienated past Orioles legends, ESPN will feature scenarios in which the team could make the playoffs. 

The Baltimore Sun will cease publishing articles about low attendance figures and fans’ disgust with the team’s performance.  The recent flap about Angelos’ refusal to erect a statue to Brooks Robinson will become a non-story. 

Instead of receiving attention for his dedication to rebuilding, fans and the media will be discussing what trades Angelos should make to fortify his roster for the stretch run. 

And Angelos will be listening. 

One can almost picture Angelos overriding MacPhail and bringing in veterans, abandoning the patient, long-term outlook he seems to have developed this offseason.  With fans and the media enamored with the team's surprise success, Angelos could pull the plug on the rebuilding project without much notice.  

And the owner’s selfish leadership practices of the past?  Old news, if the O’s keep winning.  Clearly, this phenomenon of hiding his ownership maneuverings behind distractions is nothing new for Angelos, making it very possible to happen again.

So, O’s fans, feel free to celebrate with some Natty Bohs after every additional win.  Just don’t let the victories—or the Boh—limit the accountability to which you hold Angelos.

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