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New Owner, New Optimism : Commitment to Make Orioles a Winner Could Mean Merriment in Maryland

March 27, 1994|ROSS NEWHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The impact on the Baltimore Orioles of the free-agent spending spree by new owner Peter Angelos is best measured, perhaps, in the clubhouse corner occupied here by Cal Ripken Jr.

The Oriole shortstop will start the 1994 season only 233 games shy of Lou Gehrig's record streak, but it's as if that has become a forgotten subject.

"I've always tried to downplay the streak, but I haven't even had to work at that this spring," Ripken said.

"It's very refreshing. The focus has been on the team, and that's the way it should be."

The team?

"We don't need any surprises to win," Manager John Oates said.

"We don't need two or three guys having career years. We only need them to do what they do normally."

Oates isn't predicting an American League East title. He is only saying the Orioles have the capability in one of the toughest and most competitive of the realigned divisions.

"I don't want our players or fans thinking there's a correlation between money spent and games won," he said.

"We obviously have a better chance now, but you still have to do it between the lines."

Angelos put it on the line when it counted.

A hometown attorney who amassed a fortune litigating lawsuits on behalf of workers exposed to asbestos, he saved the Orioles from absentee ownership when creditors and the courts forced a bankrupt Eli Jacobs to auction the club last October.

Angelos and his group, which includes novelist Tom Clancy, tennis player Pam Shriver and sportscaster Jim McKay, paid a record $173 million for the team, then committed $42.85 million to free agents Rafael Palmeiro, Chris Sabo, Sid Fernandez and Lee Smith.

That commitment doesn't include the three-year, $10.25-million contract given outfielder Brady Anderson, the $1.8 million used to retain designated hitter Harold Baines, or the more modest signings of three other free agents, relief pitcher Mark Eichhorn, infielder Rene Gonzales and outfielder Henry Cotto.

While baseball's owners are trying to negotiate a salary cap with the players union, the Baltimore payroll has risen from $28 million to more than $40 million, with the owner willing to spend more.

"We'll do what we need to do," Angelos said. "I mean, we'd like to stay within certain parameters at this point, but we're not going to be restricted by arbitrary limitations.

"If we can take an extra step to make the Orioles as competitive as possible, we're not going to back off and say, 'We have a budget and we have to stick to it.' That's what was happening to the club before, but it's not our intent to shrink from those opportunities."

To Angelos, who put up more than $40 million of the purchase price, or about $20 million more than Clancy, the next-largest of the 20 investors, the new approach is a pay-back for fan support at Camden Yards.

The Orioles have drawn 3.5 million and 3.6 million in their two seasons at Camden Yards, selling out 71 of 80 dates last year, and expect to draw 3.8 million in '94.

With an estimated net profit of between $25 million and $30 million in each of the last two years, $173 million seems to be a long-term bargain.

"Our fan support is beyond words," Angelos said. "If we had enough seats, we'd surpass every other club.

"Our expenditures were long overdue in light of the fan support and rather meager compared to the expenditures of other clubs over the years.

"We felt we had some catching up to do, that the previous ownership had not done all it could to repay the fans, to give them what they deserve.

"We're going to operate major league baseball in Maryland in a different way. We're committed to making the club as competitive as possible, and that's what we're doing."

The Orioles finished third in each of their first two years at Camden Yards, winning 89 and 85 games, respectively.

They were still alive in September of last season despite losing the injured Mike Mussina, Mike Devereaux and Gregg Olson, but their only late-season pickup was the 37-year-old Lonnie Smith, who batted .208 in 24 at-bats. Not exactly Fred McGriff or Rickey Henderson.

"That's what I'm talking about," Angelos said. "You had a club in the race, but management didn't respond. The fans deserved more."

The new owner huddled with Oates and General Manager Roland Hemond soon after taking over and basically said, "What do you want? What do you need?"

Or as Hemond put it: "He said he wanted to bring a championship to Baltimore, and he's backed it up. I mean, it was the ideal time to make moves because we were relatively close. We were adding to a foundation and not rebuilding."

The primary need, Oates and Hemond agreed, was greater production at the infield corners.

Sabo, who drove in 82 runs for the Cincinnati Reds last season,

ultimately rejected a multiyear offer by the New York Mets to accept a one-year, $2-million contract with the Orioles "because they give me a better chance to win immediately."

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