Nathan Ruiz: Turning down lease option another case of Orioles disregarding public perception
Published in Baseball
BALTIMORE — The Orioles don’t seem to care what you think.
On Wednesday, the team — meaning CEO and Chairman John Angelos and whoever he might have asked for input — decided to decline the option in its lease with the Maryland Stadium Authority that would have extended the agreement by five years. That choice, which leaves 11 months on the current deal that has existed since Camden Yards opened in 1992, does nothing to back Angelos’ claims about his intent to keep the team in Baltimore nor calm fans concerned about another professional sports team leaving the city.
In truth, beyond a few extra months of worry, it’s a decision that might not matter. A source with knowledge of the situation told The Baltimore Sun the team hopes to have a long-term lease by Major League Baseball’s All-Star break in July. But there’s nothing that would have prevented the Orioles from picking up the option and agreeing to a new deal in the coming months. Just last month, the neighboring Ravens, who became Baltimore’s National League Football team 12 years after the Colts left in the middle of the night in March 1984, secured a long-term lease with five years left on their previous deal with the MSA.
Choosing to pick up the option, even if it was in effect for only five months, would have offered Orioles fans peace of mind amid an offseason that has already had its share of letdowns and public relations troubles. But much like the rebuilding process that has led the team to a competitive place on the field, Wednesday’s decision is a case of the organization determining what it believes is its best path forward, fan perception be damned.
After a 2018 season in which the Orioles lost a franchise-record 115 games, the organization embarked on a full-scale rebuild, committing to investing in infrastructure not visible from a green seat at Camden Yards. In November 2018, Angelos and his brother, Louis, introduced Mike Elias, a key architect in the Houston Astros’ successful rebuild, as Baltimore’s executive vice president and general manager. Since, Elias’ baseball operations department has produced a top-ranked farm system to feed an exciting and young major league team after years of disastrous baseball. The sons of Orioles principal owner Peter Angelos, meanwhile, have become embroiled in a legal battle over their family’s fortune.
A series of escalating lawsuits began in June, when Louis Angelos first sued his brother and mother, Georgia. Within, he claimed John Angelos took control of the Orioles without his father’s permission, allowing him to sell or even move the team if he wished. John has long said the Orioles will remain in Baltimore, but signing a long-term lease is the only act that would verify those claims. Doing so would also give the Orioles access to $600 million in public funds for stadium upgrades, with the Ravens already planning changes with their new deal in place.
Angelos reiterated the team’s commitment to the city at a news conference last month, only the third time he has made himself publicly available since introducing Elias. The state of the lease was the first question he faced after announcing the Orioles’ $5 million pledge to the CollegeBound Foundation, a local nonprofit helping public school students get into and through college. The donation should have been an easy win for Angelos and the Orioles, but it became a footnote when he vehemently declined to answer a question about his family’s future with the team, saying the topic was inappropriate because it was Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Within his five-minute lecture to a reporter, Angelos welcomed local media to return to Camden Yards the “next week” so he could “show you the financials of the Orioles.” Wednesday’s decision came 16 days later, with Angelos yet to send out invitations. The lack of sincerity in those comments makes it fair to question Angelos’ other public statements, though Elias has said that his time with Baltimore has aligned with the vision Angelos shared during the hiring process.
From 2019 to 2021, the Orioles lost 18 more games than any other major league team while investments in analytics and international scouting and high draft picks stemming from their poor records resulted in one of the sport’s best minor league systems. With each of the top-five selections resulting from those seasons, the Orioles said they drafted the best player available, even if both Baseball America and MLB Pipeline disagreed. In recent weeks, all three — 2020 second overall pick Heston Kjerstad, 2021 fifth overall pick Colton Cowser and 2022 first overall pick Jackson Holliday — have appeared on at least one publication’s list of baseball’s top 100 prospects, with eight other Orioles minor leaguers joining them.
Baltimore opened the rebuild’s first three seasons with one of the majors’ four lowest payrolls, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, and began 2022 last of MLB’s 30 teams in that regard. For years, the front office drew the ire of fans for fielding teams with little chance of being competitive. But soon after promoting top prospect Adley Rutschman — the product of the first overall draft pick Baltimore received for its disastrous 2018 campaign — the Orioles unexpectedly became a contender, ending July in reach of a wild-card spot with a .500 record.
But on the first day of August, Elias traded Trey Mancini, a fan favorite even before he further endeared himself to the city in how he returned from a stage III colon cancer diagnosis, to the Astros for a pair of pitching prospects. After the move, Elias said the Orioles’ relatively meager playoff odds helped justify lowering them further by trading away a clubhouse leader and middle-of-the-order bat. Recognizing how players in that clubhouse felt after hearing those remarks, he flew from Baltimore to Texas — after also trading away All-Star closer Jorge López — to address some of them directly and assure them of his belief in the team, both now and in the future.
Elias then did the same with media, delivering his now infamous “liftoff from here” line that ignited hope in the fan base for what this offseason could bring. Instead, the Orioles have made moves on the margins, with modest upgrades but no splashes. Their payroll is projected to be $65 million, a 50% increase from opening day last year that still ranks as the league’s second-lowest figure.
But with many products of the rebuild set to play key roles on the 2023 Orioles and beyond, the frustration of the past five years might finally be considered worthwhile. Elias has long said there was no other path forward for the team he inherited than its arduous rebuild, and a playoff berth in 2023 — an outcome largely dependent on the progress of young talent — would help reinforce that idea.
Perhaps there also was no path toward a long-term lease other than Wednesday’s choice to leave 11 months until the current deal expires. Imposing a deadline might be what it takes to finalize an agreement years in the making.
But until that happens, Wednesday simply marked another piece of evidence the Orioles don’t operate with fans’ feelings front of mind.
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