Orioles owner Peter Angelos dies at 94, months after family sold team


Peter G. Angelos once took umbrage with being described as “polarizing” by The Baltimore Sun.

Equipped with an expansive vocabulary befitting a world-class attorney, Angelos believed polarizing suggested there was no gray area, no room for negotiation or movement. Since Angelos championed righting wrongs and fighting the good fight, he found it incomprehensible that someone could uniformly oppose him.

If they did that 100 percent of the time, well, they were wrong. Or “assholes,” to use one of Angelos’ favorite derogatory terms.

Or both.

Such was the mindset of the incomparable Angelos, the billionaire attorney and, ultimately, majority owner of the Baltimore Orioles for more than 30 years, who died Saturday after a lengthy illness.

He was 94 years old.

In the weeks before Angelos’ death, his family carried out one of his last wishes: to sell the Orioles. A group led by billionaire David Rubenstein agreed to purchase the Baltimore Orioles for $1.725 billion in late January. The deal is still pending finalization from Major League Baseball, which could come as soon as over the next two weeks. The agreement stated that upon Peter Angelos’ death, the group would go from the ability to purchase 40 percent of the Angelos’ family stake to 100 percent, effectively making Rubenstein the new majority owner.

Polarizing or not, Peter Angelos was one of the most recognizable and discussed owners in American sports, initially perceived as a local hero for purchasing the Orioles out of bankruptcy court and for funneling hundreds of millions into the Baltimore community. But he also was viewed by many as meddlesome and domineering while overseeing the most pitiful stretch of on-field play in Orioles’ history — a franchise-record 14 losing seasons from 1998 to 2011 — that landed him the distinction of worst owner in Major League Baseball in a 2009 Sports Illustrated poll.

It’s a nuanced legacy, and a significant one.

“As a team owner, you kind of look at him in one bucket, as a lawyer in another bucket and then as a philanthropist, you look at him in a third,” said former Orioles executive and current baseball analyst Jim Duquette. “That’s what makes his legacy so complicated for me.”

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GO DEEPER

Rosenthal: For Peter Angelos, the Baltimore Orioles were only part of his story

Born in Pittsburgh to Greek immigrants, Angelos and his family moved to Baltimore when he was a boy. He bartended at his father’s tavern in Northeast Baltimore while working his way through college, eventually earning valedictorian of his class at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

A Baltimore City Councilman at age 29, Angelos ran for mayor in the 1967 Democratic primary — sharing the city’s first interracial ticket with Clarence Mitchell III — but Angelos lost to Thomas “Young Tommy” D’Alesandro III, the son of former Baltimore Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., and the older brother of former U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

Although he remained a major financial contributor to the Democratic party throughout his life, Angelos’ focus shifted from political aspirations to growing his personal injury law firm into one of the most successful — and feared — in the country. He built his reputation and fortune on tirelessly defending the aggrieved working class against business behemoths including asbestos manufacturers and the tobacco industry, recovering billions in awards and settlements for his clients and his firm.

Angelos already was established as one of Maryland’s most influential residents when, in 1993, he led a group of local investors to purchase the Orioles for $173 million during a bankruptcy auction in New York City. That acquisition was celebrated by Baltimore-area sports fans who were less than a decade removed from losing the NFL’s Colts to Indianapolis, a move orchestrated by Chicago businessman and perceived carpetbagger Robert Irsay. In contrast, Angelos was a local guy, a baseball fan and someone who pledged to spend enough money to make the once-great Orioles competitive again in the American League East.

With key free-agent purchases and the hiring of former Orioles’ minor-league teammates Davey Johnson as manager and Pat Gillick as general manager, the club reached the postseason in 1996 for the first time in 13 years and, in 1997, went wire-to-wire to win the AL East, ultimately losing to the Cleveland Indians in the American League Championship Series.

Angelos immediately showed he wasn’t afraid of the old baseball establishment, refusing to assemble a team of non-union replacement players during the sport’s work stoppage of 1994-95, despite urging from MLB and its ownership group. And when Commissioner Bud Selig wanted to move a National League team into Washington D.C. before the 2005 season, Angelos shrewdly negotiated the creation of the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, which broadcasts Orioles and Washington Nationals games with the Orioles maintaining majority controlling interest, as a way for the organization to recoup some of the lost revenue from sharing its territory.

As Angelos’ regime progressed forward, the public perception of him among the Orioles’ fan base began to erode while his hands-on approach became increasingly scrutinized.

The most memorable example occurred in July 1996, when Gillick planned to trade away veteran outfielder Bobby Bonilla and pitcher David Wells for younger players while the Orioles were treading water in the AL East standings.

But Angelos famously nixed the deal because he felt like it sent a message to fans that the organization was giving up with two months to play and the new wild card playoff format in place. Indeed, the Orioles rallied in the second half to make the postseason, which emboldened Angelos but led to growing conflict between the owner and his baseball people.

The following season, despite the Orioles’ division-winning success, a feud between Johnson and Angelos mushroomed until Johnson tendered his resignation on the day he was named AL Manager of the Year, and Angelos accepted it. Gillick left a year later when his contract expired and those two defections, along with the departure of beloved radio announcer Jon Miller to return to his hometown San Francisco Giants in 1996, partially because Angelos felt Miller was too critical of the club, plummeted the owner’s approval rating among fans.

It only worsened as the franchise embarked on 14 consecutive losing seasons, which were a mix of rebuilding efforts and big-ticket purchases that rarely panned out. Meanwhile, Angelos began fading from the public eye, aggravated by negative press, dipping attendance and on-field ineptitude. He would attend games in his private suite but seldom appeared before the Camden Yards crowd and was rarely quoted in the media, even once MASN was formed.

“He kind of separated himself after a while from the ballclub. He just didn’t show up anymore for a lot of the games,” said longtime Orioles player, coach and broadcaster Rick Dempsey. “He used to come quite often. But I think the constant losing finally caught up with him and he basically didn’t know what to do.”

When the Orioles snapped their playoff drought in 2012, Angelos and his sons twice entered the clubhouse during the postseason — marking the first time that many of the Orioles’ players had actually met the club’s owner. The players flocked to Angelos to shake his hand. Closer Jim Johnson presented Angelos with a game ball from one of his club-record 51 saves that season.

“I think Peter tried to hold this organization together as much as he possibly could,” Dempsey said. “He tried and tried and tried to put the best team out there. He wanted to win, I know that, and he was pretty upset we didn’t win, quite a few times.”

Angelos — known as Mr. A within the organization — was without a doubt the supreme decision-maker with the Orioles. But his penchant to seek myriad baseball opinions led to a different set of problems in the latter part of his tenure. He no longer was viewed as a day-to-day meddler, but his baseball operations people had to be prepared for a curveball to be thrown at any time, because, like a prepared attorney, Angelos thoroughly vetted important issues.

“He ran the baseball team like he ran his law firm, which (meant) he had no real hierarchy or structure. Everyone’s opinion, regardless if they had all of the information or some or even none, he weighed their opinions equally,” said Jim Duquette, who was the Orioles’ vice president of baseball operations from 2005 to 2007.

“In the law firm, everyone has their own case files and cases, and they all report to Peter, and that works. But in a baseball hierarchy, everyone has pieces of information that get funneled upward to the general manager, and he has all the information that he then siphons and tells the owner what he thinks is most important. Peter didn’t trust that structure,” Duquette added. “And it’s because he had success in his law firm, he thought that would work on the baseball side. And it just didn’t.”

Dempsey said twice during the decade of the 2000s, Angelos promised him the managerial job, only to tell him later that others had dissuaded him from that decision.

“Peter did give me the managing job, legitimately, two times,” Dempsey said. “He called me in and said, ‘You’re gonna manage this ballclub next year.’ And two days later he had to renege. Twice. But at least he told me why.”

Angelos nixed several trades over the years because, for one reason or another, his research showed they were too risky. Duquette remembers a 2006 deal that he and club executive vice president Mike Flanagan had in place with the Philadelphia Phillies for outfielder Bobby Abreu, who was having a sub-par year by his standards but was still a productive player. The Orioles would have dealt away declining right-hander Rodrigo Lopez, who was an 18-game loser that season, and absorb the two-plus years left on Abreu’s contract. It was basically a salary dump and Angelos was initially on board to spend some money to get Abreu.

But Angelos came back to Duquette and said he had decided against it. Angelos had a lawyer friend in Philadelphia, Duquette recalled, who said Abreu played tentatively in the outfield and wouldn’t be a good fit in Baltimore. The deal was scrapped, and Abreu was traded to the rival New York Yankees.

“It was like, ‘You gotta be kidding me.’ That was the level of frustration. Like I can’t even believe I’m having this conversation,” Duquette said. “On a day-to-day basis, he was not meddling at all. And I would say through 90 percent of it, I don’t think he meddled. But when the most important decisions needed to be made, even if you kept him in the loop on how things were going, (there was a) willingness to consider everyone else’s opinions equally. That’s how it was meddling. It was meddlesome, but it was in a different way.”

That trend, Duquette said, didn’t seem to end until Angelos clandestinely hired Andy MacPhail in the middle of the 2007 season to run the Orioles. The hire came as a surprise to the industry — and to Flanagan and Duquette — but Angelos and MacPhail had worked together during previous MLB labor negotiations and there was a mutual respect. For the next few years, MacPhail carefully oversaw a thorough rebuild that paid dividends from 2012 to 2016 with three playoff appearances for his Orioles successor, Dan Duquette, Jim’s cousin.

“Peter finally gave in because he trusted Andy MacPhail and he gave him the power,” Duquette said. “And once he did that, you saw different results at the end of Andy’s tenure and then when Dan came over.”

In 2010, MacPhail hired veteran manager Buck Showalter, at the urging of Angelos, and it turned out to be the impetus for the franchise’s brief resurgence. Those successful years, however, didn’t yield what Angelos wanted most for his organization and city: A World Series appearance and championship.

The window for postseason competitiveness essentially closed in 2016, months after Angelos personally negotiated a deal to sign slugger Chris Davis to a club-record, seven-year, $161 million contract. Angelos rewarded a player for whom he was particularly fond, but it also was a nod to Orioles fans who had seen other key players leave through free agency in previous years. The move backfired, and Davis’ deal is now considered among the worst in the sport’s history.

Despite the common perception that Angelos would not spend money on player salaries, the owner approved several landmark contracts throughout his tenure and, in the late 1990s, had the highest payroll in the game.

“He was willing to spend,” Jim Duquette said. “I always said that the money was there. He just didn’t want to deficit-spend. And I don’t think you can hold that against any owner.”

Unfortunately for Angelos and the Orioles, some of the largest free-agent contracts he approved during his tenure — for Albert Belle, Miguel Tejada, Ubaldo Jimenez and Davis — failed. And, each time, it seemed to give him trepidation for a period before jumping back into the major free-agent market.

“This guy was the greatest attorney in the country,” Dempsey said. “But got burned on so many big baseball deals.”

In 2018, the Orioles embarked on another rebuild, but by then Angelos’ health was failing, and the day-to-day operations were passed to his sons, John, who is now the club’s current CEO and chairman, and Louis. The two hired Mike Elias as general manager in November 2018 to be the architect of the next phase of Orioles baseball. The losing continued for the first three seasons under the Elias regime, but in 2022, the Orioles had a 31-win turnaround and finished with an 83-79 record.

The 2022 season, however, was the Angelos’ most tumultuous off the field. With Peter Angelos intellectually incapacitated, Louis Angelos sued his older brother John and mother Georgia, claiming that he was illegally pushed out of Orioles’ ownership.

The very public, ugly and expensive legal spat ran counter to the way Angelos conducted business, especially family business. He was known as an exceptionally private person, and those who spent time with him believe he would have been mortified by the inter-family lawsuits. The lawsuit was settled in February 2023.

In 2023, as Angelos’ health continued to deteriorate, the Orioles roared back into baseball relevance. They won the AL East on the back of young talent like Adley Rutschman, Gunner Henderson and Grayson Rodriguez in a 101-win season that many perceive as the beginning of a dynasty, just as ownership changes hands.

Regardless, Angelos’ legacy can’t be defined simply by owning a baseball team, amassing wealth or courtroom success. Another essential component of his story is the philanthropic nature that led Angelos and his wife, Georgia, to donate hundreds of millions of dollars toward community improvements, including the John and Frances Angelos Law Center at the University of Baltimore Law School and specialty medical units at various local hospitals.

It’s impossible to know how much Angelos donated during his life because he often made anonymous contributions to various charities as well as working behind the scenes — and sometimes paying the bill — to help sick and injured people receive top medical or legal care. On at least two occasions, he made sure Orioles employees stricken with cancer could exhaust every possible medical avenue. He possessed an unyielding loyalty to those who were connected to him and were, in turn, loyal to his family or franchise.

With a phone call or an introduction, he could make impenetrable walls move, like when he assisted former Orioles star Rafael Palmeiro in getting his brother and his brother’s family out of Cuba.

Five years after he left the Orioles, Jim Duquette was grappling with the most personal of all issues. His then 10-year-old daughter, Lindsay, suffered from a rare and complicated kidney disease and had been treated for years at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.

In 2012, Duquette had decided to donate his kidney to his sick daughter, but his insurance company ruled the operation would be considered out-of-market, meaning it would have to occur in Virginia or Pennsylvania, and, therefore, away from the doctors who had been by her side throughout the process. Or the Duquette family would have to pay the out-of-market expenses, which would have been around $350,000.

Frustrated, Duquette called his former boss, who listened to the story, and then hung up to make a phone call to a local prominent surgeon. Within a day, after some more discussion with the hospital and the insurance company, the red tape was snapped, and the transplant occurred at Johns Hopkins. Duquette’s daughter has led a normal life since.

“He was a tough SOB. One of the toughest lawyers and negotiators you would ever come across, but he had this soft human side that I really don’t know that he wanted people to know about,” Duquette said. “But I got to witness it.”

Duquette is one of many who intimately experienced Angelos’ incomparable legacy: the enraged fighter, the shrewd negotiator, the generous philanthropist, the oft-criticized owner of a bad baseball team.

“I actually loved and respected that guy. He was one of the top three people I’ve met in the game,” Dempsey said. “He was always straightforward with me. He was honest. It wasn’t always roses. Peter, a couple of times, he got a little upset with me about a couple of things. But you know something? We always worked through it.”

Required reading

(Photo: Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun / Tribune News Service via Getty Images)





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