Family feud in ownership overshadowing Orioles’ play on field

They have one of the game’s bright young things in Adley Rutschman and a bullpen that’s been surprisingly strong, but the Baltimore Orioles are vastly more interesting off the field thanks to a family squabble involving the sons of Peter Angelos.

So now I find myself not only wondering what might have been had Buck Showalter remembered during the 2016 American League wild-card game that Zach Britton was on his team; I’m also reminded how close baseball history came to being flipped on its head had Jeffrey Loria bought the Orioles in 1993.

The Orioles used to be one of the game’s marquee franchises, playing in a ballpark that every other team in baseball tried to emulate and with an owner who, if you were a baseball fan, seemed on the “right side” of just about everything, including baseball’s often bitter labour disputes.

But Angelos, a lawyer who made his money representing workers in class-action asbestos lawsuits and leading Maryland’s legal action against tobacco companies, is dealing with the ravages of old age, and as the Baltimore Sun reported last week, his son Louis Angelos is suing older brother John over what he sees as John’s attempt to take over control and ownership of the Angelos’ real estate holdings and the Orioles.

John Angelos is the Orioles chairman and chief executive officer and has been the family face of the franchise since the now-92-year-old Peter Angelos started suffering heart issues in 2017 … the year after the Toronto Blue Jays beat the Orioles in that aforementioned game at the Rogers Centre, sending the franchise into a spiral from which it hasn’t recovered.

As part of the lawsuit, the younger of the Angelos sons suggests his older sibling has unilaterally killed several offers to buy the team — holding out the idea that John Angelos might even relocate the team to Nashville.

Now, nobody is much buying that, but considering the state of Maryland is ready to commit $1.2 billion to upgrade Camden Yards and the nearby home of the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens – and considering that the Orioles will need significant investment in their roster team the next two years if this rebuild gathers momentum – it must certainly add to a sense of disquiet to a franchise that has been moribund since Showalter lost his Inventor Of The Game ® business card some place between the visitors’ dugout at the Rogers Centre and the pathway Ubaldo Jimenez – not Britton – took out of the Orioles bullpen in the 11th inning.

Soon he’d be serving up a three-run homer to Edwin Encarnacion, and unleashing all manner of baseball hell on the Orioles.

Loria, remember, bid aggressively for the Orioles when they were put up for sale in a bankruptcy court auction in 1993, finally giving in after 16 rounds of bidding in which the sale price reached $173 million. The auction was ordered after the Orioles owner, financier Eli Jacobs, was forced to declare bankruptcy less than five years after purchasing the team for $70 million from the estate of Edward Bennett Williams.

Originally, three groups were bidding for the team: Angelos, William DeWitt, Jr., and Loria, the life-long New York Yankees fan and art dealer. But just before the bidding began, DeWitt — whose bid to buy the team on his own from Jacobs was killed when Jacobs filed for Chapter 11 — merged his group with that of Angelos.

Loria was gracious in defeat, according to the New York Times, even while he suggested he was “ganged-up on.” He would, of course, end up as managing general partner of the Montreal Expos and after wearing down his local partners with cash calls, end up owning the then-Florida Marlins in a game of ownership musical chairs that saw John Henry go from owning the Marlins to owning the Boston Red Sox while Major League Baseball took over operation of the Expos before moving the team to Washington, where they became the Nationals. Everybody ended up winning at least one World Series out of the deal except, of course, for Expos fans who were left with nada.

At the time, the price tag paid by the Angelos group shattered the record sale price for an MLB franchise — by $67 million. To put the sale into further context, to that point the record purchase for any professional team was the $140 million Jerry Jones paid for the Dallas Cowboys — and Texas Stadium — in 1989.

It’s another off-field headache for commissioner Rob Manfred, who still hasn’t been able to wrestle the regional television rights payment squabble between the Orioles and the Washington Nationals – themselves up for sale — and is still waiting for clarity on new ballparks for the Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays in the middle of a wider economic downturn.

HIT-AND-RUN

• Loved the way Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch talked about the Blue Jays’ George Springer, who established himself as a lead-off hitter with the Houston Astros when they were managed by Hinch even though some saw him as a middle-of-the-order bat. “People always talk about a middle of the order bat, but he (Springer) is a middle-of-the-order bat that hits lead-off,” Hinch told us on Blair & Barker.

“He’s treated like a middle of the order bat. I’ve seen Nathan Eovaldi throw him a first-pitch splitter; I’ve seen Chris Sale throw him a slider on the first pitch of the game. I’ve seen Trevor Bauer and Shane Bieber throw him first-pitch sliders to start playoff games. I don’t think people appreciate the anxiousness and anxiety that comes with the first pitch of a game ….”

• Is Robbie Ray about to embark on another renaissance? We’ll see. Ray, who made mechanical and mental adjustments last season en route to winning the American League Cy Young Award with the Blue Jays, had his first scoreless outing of the year Sunday for his new team, the Seattle Mariners, with three hits and four strikeouts over seven innings while making ample use of a two-seam fastball he says he hasn’t thrown since 2016.

Ray has been a disappointment since signing a five-year, $115-million free-agent contract and said he made the change halfway through a start against the Astros. Sunday, he threw his two-seamer (sinker) 48 per cent of the time and his four-seamer 29 per cent of the time, after throwing the latter pitch 48 per cent of the time in his first 11 starts.

“I feel like the game has a four-to-five year adjustment period,” Ray told MLB.com. “I feel like it was maybe five, six years ago where it was the end of the sinkerball era. Guys started throwing four-seamers at the top of the zone and now we’re seeing guys get on top of 101-102 m.p.h. fastballs at the top of the zone. Maybe guys are going to start working at the bottom again.”

• It is well-known that the only reason Tony La Russa is managing in the majors is because of his friendship with Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, whose best-by date as an owner has deteriorated almost as rapidly as La Russa’s “Use Before” date as manager.

Stay around as long as Reinsdorf and you can almost con yourself into thinking doing something like a dude in his late 70s to manage your team qualified as outside-the-box thinking.

Any normal owner would be looking at making La Russa the third managerial candidate to be fired this season – along with Joe Girardi and Joe Maddon – after seeing his team go 0-5-3 in its last eight home series and hearing the paying customers chant for his firing as they were this weekend. But you just don’t know with Reinsdorf.

• Induction ceremonies at the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in St. Marys, Ont. take place next weekend, and Philadelphia Phillies manager Rob Thomson – a 2019 inductee – will no doubt be a topic of conversation and maybe even there will be the odd toast in his honour.

Thomson’s Phillies were pounded 13-1 by the Arizona Diamondbacks on Sunday, ending at eight Thomson’s unbeaten string since replacing Girardi. Thomson, a Sarnia, Ont., native, is the third manager in MLB history to win each of his first eight games, joining Joe Morgan of the 1988 Boston Red Sox (winner of his first 12 games as a manager) and Pat Moran of the 1915 Phillies.

The last Canadian to manage an MLB club on an interim or full-time basis was George “Mooney” Gibson, who managed for seven years — six with the Pittsburgh Pirates wrapped around a stint with the Chicago Cubs. The London native’s last year of managing was 1934.

• More Canadiana: Alex Anthopoulos’ Atlanta Braves beat the Pirates 5-3 on Sunday for their 11th win in a row and they’re now just 5 ½ games back of the National League East-leading New York Mets, shaving five games off that deficit during the streak.

The Braves were a season-worst 10 ½ games out of first on June 1, and are trying to erase their biggest deficit in the division era. The 1993 Braves were 10 games out on July 22 before claiming the division title on the final day of the season. It took 104 wins that season to beat the San Francisco Giants, with both teams playing in the National League West.

THE END GAME

It was nice of the Blue Jays to call up top prospect Gabriel Moreno this weekend, which sets up a fun storyline during this four-game series against Baltimore at Rogers Centre since the Orioles are carrying rookie catcher Rutschman, the game’s top prospect heading into the season.

We had a chance to talk to Hinch before Moreno made his debut this weekend at Comerica Park, and asked Hinch – a former third-round pick as a catcher – what he looked for in a young backstop. “I’m more interested in seeing him interact with his pitchers, instead of looking at the boxscore,” Hinch said, before a series in which Moreno would go 1-for-7 and earn plaudits for the way he worked with Kevin Gausman and Ross Stripling in back-to-back starts.

“Building trust is the most important thing (for a young catcher) but he will be judged on his hits. What Charlie (Montoyo, the Blue Jays manager) wants and what the fans want might be different things.”

From my point of view, all I want from Moreno is good defence, game-calling and pitch-framing and the odd offensive contribution.

I’m not worried about how the team deals with things once Danny Jansen gets back. If Moreno can play and Alejandro Kirk keeps hitting and Jansen picks up where he left off … that’s a pretty nice setup. Bottom line? If the Jays play their cards right, they are set at catcher on a cost-effective basis for the better part of a decade.

Jeff Blairs hosts Blair & Barker from 10-Noon ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan and Sportsnet 360. He and Barker also host Blue Jays Talk following Jays games.