A great team, an ambitious plan and an ‘existential’ issue
By Tyler Kepner
It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, which is always how it should be at Oriole Park, in the shadow of the B&O Warehouse at Camden Yards in Baltimore. This is the setting, after all, that transformed professional sports as few other forces ever have, synergizing team and town and making the venue the star attraction.
That happened in 1992, the year before Peter Angelos, a prominent trial lawyer, bought his hometown Orioles. The team has risen (though never to the World Series) and fallen (often quite far) in the decades since, and now it is cresting again. Peter, 94, is retired, and his son John, 56, is the team’s managing partner. John took a seat in the home dugout one recent afternoon while the visiting New York Mets took batting practice, pausing now and then to greet people by name.
The clubhouse manager, Fred Tyler, whose family has worked for the team since it moved from St. Louis in 1954, got a hearty hello. So did star rookie Grayson Rodriguez, who has helped pitch the Orioles to the top of the American League East. Angelos had already chatted with Buck Showalter — the former Baltimore manager who now guides the wealthy but woeful Mets — and would soon entertain members of the Orioles’ last championship team, from 1983, in a suite overlooking the empire.
“Remember the context,” Kurt Schmoke, the mayor of Baltimore from 1987 to 1999, said in the suite during the game, a runaway win for the Orioles. “We had lost the Colts and there was some concern about the economics of professional sports and whether the Orioles might be attracted. So the governor and the Stadium Authority made the commitment to build down here, and it just boosted the morale of people and made everyone in the community very proud that we were kind of leaders of the new generation of ballparks, the new generation of sports.”
The model has changed, and this is why the often reclusive Angelos is eager to talk. Unlike the NFL’s Ravens, who play across the parking lot and signed a lease agreement in January that runs through 2037, the Orioles have not officially committed to their long-term future here. Simply signing an extension would unlock $600 million in state-funded ballpark improvements, but Angelos has grander ambitions.
That might make some fans nervous, considering the frustrations of the last three decades.
Peter Angelos was often heavily involved in baseball operations, and the on-field product suffered; the Orioles had the sport’s third-worst winning percentage from 1998 through 2011. John Angelos has delegated baseball decisions to a forward-thinking general manager, Mike Elias, but the recent suspension of a broadcaster on the Orioles’ cable network highlighted at least some level of organizational dysfunction.
The broadcasting flap took some attention from the team, and Angelos said he regretted that, too. He generally keeps his distance from the field and clubhouse, focusing on the business of the organization. His priority for now is not a lease extension — Angelos does not like the word lease — but a “public-private partnership” that would reinvent the Camden Yards campus.
The plans, naturally, would include the usual live-work-play stuff — residences, hotels, shops, restaurants, bars — that modern owners covet.
But Angelos mentioned several other possibilities: an elementary school located in the warehouse, a health and wellness clinic, internship and mentorship programs for local youth.
“People will speak about Baltimore like, ‘Wow, Baltimore is cutting-edge,’ which is what they said about Camden Yards,” Angelos said. “If we develop it right, and we include that impactful community program module, we can change the whole brand of Baltimore.”
While Camden Yards inspired a building wave of stadiums and arenas designed to lift surrounding local businesses (at least in theory), the Atlanta Braves’ complex in suburban Cobb County, Georgia, is the new standard. Instead of only profiting from in-ballpark sales, the Braves essentially built their own city — known as the Battery and opened in 2017 — to give them a stake in adjacent properties, too.
You see it all over: The San Francisco Giants developed the area on the other side of McCovey Cove; the Boston Red Sox built a 5,000-seat music venue at Fenway Park; the Chicago Cubs bought several buildings that border Wrigley Field. But Atlanta is the ideal, and Angelos has visited the Braves’ complex with Maryland’s governor, Wes Moore, and stadium authority officials.
“The Braves have a couple of things going for them,” Angelos said. “They’ve done very well on the baseball side. They have a really big market, which helps a lot. And then they’ve developed this whole other revenue stream, this whole other business.
“And if big markets like Boston and Atlanta are doing it, it becomes existential — how are we going to compete and keep pace? Everybody won’t be able to do it. But I think because of what’s here — the brand of this ballpark, this piece of property of 60-odd acres with other land around it that could be accessed, maybe bolted on, with the mass transit you don’t even have in Atlanta, with the great highway systems — we think it’s existential.”
He said that the shared passion of government officials had helped fuel his enthusiasm for the project. But remember that word, existential — that is, pivotal to the franchise’s very existence. And remember this, too: While the Braves have nine players signed beyond 2024, the Orioles have none. They will not spend more without making more.
“I don’t think you should run losses,” Angelos said. “I think you should live within your means and within your market.”
The Orioles’ $70 million payroll this season ranks 28th of the 30 teams. It is largely a function of the players’ lack of service time, which limits their earning power in the peculiar economy of baseball. Angelos has a lot of qualms with that system: “The hardest thing to do in sports is be a small-market team in baseball and be competitive, because everything is stacked against you — everything,” he said. And he conceded that it might not be feasible for his popular young core to be career Orioles like Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer and Cal Ripken Jr.
Without major changes, he sees only one way the team could retain all of its young stars.
“We’re going to have to raise the prices here — dramatically,” he said.
Angelos offered wide-ranging theories on baseball’s economics — talking points, perhaps, for future labor negotiations with the union. But the current collective bargaining agreement runs through 2026, and it’s reasonable to wonder whether these Orioles will be building a dynasty by then or breaking up.
To Angelos, the answer is tied to the fate of the ballpark deal. The future of Camden Yards, quite clearly, is a legacy play for Angelos — but, he insisted, it is also something more.
“It’s really about taking a brand-new Baltimore and pushing it higher,” Angelos said. “But you need that leadership, you need government and private coming together. I think we can really do something amazing. We’re so well located. The community is diverse and robust and growing. We can do it. We just need to think big. We did it before.”