December 7, 2021

Beholding the Beauty of the Not-Quite-Normal 2021 Season

April 18, 2021 by · Leave a Comment 

The sun was surprisingly warm as we sat along the left field foul line, a dozen rows up from the emerald green field at Camden Yards. The crowd was sparse, socially distanced, but still keenly focused on the game set to begin on the field. There has been little to draw large crowds to Baltimore’s baseball cathedral since they won the AL East in 2014. That season was the last one where the serious money invested in Chris Davis was not an embarrassment. That year Manny Machado was the supernova shining from the center of the Baltimore system. The Adam Jones/Chris Tillman trade still looked good. Nick Markakis remained in right field. It was a long time ago, in a universe far, far away.

Markakis retired from the game this year and to further date our current situation, Peter Angelos was only 84 years old in 2014, still coherent enough to steer the combative litigation over regional television rights being fought out in the courts with the Washington Nationals.

Now the Orioles and its owner are on a death watch, and the future is a thing few will discuss openly. Angelos bought the team for $173 million in 1993, and its current value is estimated at $1.4 billion. John Angelos, Peter’s son who is now at the helm, spends money like it was 1993 all over again. The 2021 payroll of $57 million is 28th among the 30 MLB teams. Chris Davis’s $21 million salary is more than a third of that total. Trey Mancini’s $4.75 million makes him the most expensive player that actually takes the field on a consistent basis.

The Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) began making serious cuts to broadcast and production staff during the off-season, mirroring moves made by the club itself that cut key coaches during the 2020 season. Every MLB team reputedly was hammered with revenue losses by COVID in 2020. But the Orioles may have been in worse shape than most as baseball descended into the hellish pandemic year. The ugly economic realities of baseball appeared to come to the fore when longtime Oriole play-by-play man, Gary Thorne, was fired in the runup to the 2021 season. Immediately, news of a pending sale began to reemerge. No one could count many local owners that could put together a bid to approach the $1.4 billion mark. They will be scarce, which has raised concerns among Baltimore area fans that the team could be moved.

Those fears were common place when Angelos bought the team, and his commitment to keep the team in Baltimore made him a popular local figure at the time. Who might wear that mantle if the team were sold today? Some see Cal Ripken playing that role, much the way Derek Jeter was the captain of a group that bought the Miami Marlins for $1.2 billion in 2017. That price might be a reasonable comparable given the difficult situation the Orioles find themselves in now. Despite winning a World Series title in 1997, the Marlins have always struggled to put fans into every stadium in which they have played. The team has been selling off players since that first title and has been, “rebuilding,” ever since. By way of contrast, the Orioles sold out games regularly during their late 1990’s heyday.

Former Orioles’ executive Larry Lucchino’s name has been mentioned as a possible buyer, but he is 77, and while the current U.S. President, Joe Biden is of similar age, it remains to be seen whether Lucchino has serious interest in entering the MLB fray again after stepping back from Boston Red Sox ownership in 2015. The Carlyle Group, whose headquarters are in Washington, DC, are also rumored to be a player, and they have the kind of money that makes sense. But rather than have an impersonal corporate face at the helm, it is almost certain that the other MLB owners would insist that there be someone like Ripken or Lucchino steering the enterprise nominally.

More than anything else, Camden Yards itself is the most likely reason baseball will not leave Baltimore. Paul Goldberger’s beautiful book, Ballpark, was the first to elaborate at length on the pivotal role that Janet Marie Smith and Paul Jacobs played, serving as Sherpas as baseball architecture climbed from the brutal depths of the new Commiskey to the pinnacle of excellence born in Baltimore, then repeated in Pittsburgh and other cities across the country. The Yards remain a pristine monument to that history, a glowing gem to rebirth, set amidst downtown Baltimore’s inner harbor area.

New skyscrapers hide the old Bromo Seltzer Tower that once dominated the view out from left center. One can now travel to the stadium via light rail that connects not only Camden Yards to Penn Station and downtown, but also the airport. It is difficult to imagine another American city, especially one without a baseball team, that could provide such a stadium. No, the chances that Camden Yards is shuttered and without baseball seem slim. Home plate is at 16.5 feet above mean sea level, so even climate change is unlikely to unseat the Orioles in the near future.

The Orioles were playing a double-header against the Seattle Mariners as my friends and I sat watching the first game draw to a close. There were drunks in the crowd, but they quieted as one of them was escorted out. A return to civility was good to see and  those wishing to keep score the old fashioned way could enjoy the peaceful afternoon once again. I am reluctant to raise the counterpoint, stadiums where ownership is so keen to turn a profit that brutish behavior goes unrestrained. They are too common, but the atmosphere at Camden Yards is about the game, pure and simple.

Everyone not staying for the second contest filed out of Camden Yards with a smile. We were all coherent enough to tell you the final score, to explain the end as it will go down in record books. The Orioles lost a tightly contested game. They will lose more like it before the team’s future is settled, before new owners are found to build these Orioles into a team once again, one that can compete on an even playing field with the Yankees, Red Sox, the Rays and the Jays. But spirits were still high as everyone walked out onto Russell Street, or towards the old railroad warehouse along Eutaw Street that greeted those headed home. After all, it was still a beautiful April day, with the sun beaming in the heavens. Baseball and the stars above, promised more just like it.

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