The man looking out the store window recognized Peter Angelos, who was being photographed at Baltimore's Harbor-place on this frosty February afternoon. A wave of the hand or pump of the fist wouldn't have been sufficient acknowledgment of this local hero, the new majority owner of the Baltimore Orioles. No, the man in the window did what maniacal baseball fans in this town do—he spelled out O-R-I-O-L-E-S with his body.
The love affair between Baltimore and the O's now runs deeper than ever, thanks to Angelos, an attorney who amassed a fortune litigating lawsuits on behalf of workers exposed to asbestos. On Oct. 4, when Angelos and his local ownership group took control of the Orioles from Eli Jacobs, a bankrupt New York financier whose creditors repossessed his desk for $18,000 and his brass toilet-paper dispenser for $77, the fiscal handcuffs were removed from the team's management for the first time in this decade. During the off-season the Orioles quickly became baseball's most aggressive operatives in the free-agent market and transformed themselves overnight into its most-improved team, one that's set to challenge the world champion Toronto Blue Jays in the American League East.
"This is the most excited I've been about spring training since I've been here," says Baltimore manager Johnny Oates, who joined the club in 1989. He should be excited. Angelos, who must have the deepest pockets of any man with a 28-inch inseam, has committed $42.85 million to sign four free agents who will be regulars in the Oriole lineup: first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, third baseman Chris Sabo, pitcher Sid Fernandez and closer Lee Smith. That's three times as much money as any of the other four American League East teams has spent on free agents this winter, and it doesn't include the three-year, $10.25 million contract given to outfielder Brady Anderson; the $1.8 million spent to keep designated hitter Harold Baines for another year; or the signings of three other free agents (reliever Mark Eichhorn, infielder Rene Gonzales and outfielder Henry Cotto) who provide much-needed depth.
"They're a lot better club," says Toronto general manager Pat Gillick, whose team was only a game ahead of Baltimore on Sept. 8, before the O's faded and finished tied for third at 85-77. Says Boston Red Sox manager Butch Hobson, "The Orioles scare me." And Detroit Tiger manager Sparky Anderson calls Baltimore "the team to beat."
The Orioles were beaten last year mainly because the penurious Jacobs refused to allow his payroll to exceed $30 million, a figure ranking in the bottom third of the American League. Consequently they came up short in their pursuit of free agent Paul Molitor, who signed with Toronto after the 1992 season, and they couldn't afford to deal for San Diego Padre first baseman Fred McGriff, who went to the Atlanta Braves last July. The Orioles' pickup for the stretch run was 37-year-old outfielder Lonnie Smith, who was no factor. "The effort from management was inadequate," says Angelos. So this winter he asked Oates, "What do you need? What do you want?" Then Angelos delivered.
The major void, at first base, was filled by Palmeiro, who signed a five-year, $30.35 million deal. Last year Baltimore first basemen combined to hit just 11 homers (lowest in the league) and drive in 74 runs (second lowest) while Palmeiro had 37 homers and 105 RBIs for the Texas Rangers. Better still, he bats lefthanded—perfect for the short rightfield fence (318 feet down the line) at Camden Yards. "When I was in Baltimore in December," Palmeiro says of his meeting with Angelos, "he walked into a restaurant, and everyone stopped. That shows the power he has. He made a promise to get players, and he's kept it. Potentially, this is the best offensive club in the league."
Sabo, who drove in 82 runs last year for the Cincinnati Reds, fills another gap at third, where the Orioles got only 65 RBIs (tied for second worst in the league). In accepting a one-year, $2 million contract with Baltimore, he turned down a better offer from the New York Mets ($2.5 million, with an option year). "I wanted a team that could win now," says Sabo.
The Oriole rotation had a lofty 4.57 ERA last year, so Baltimore came up with a three-year, $9 million package for the Mets' Fernandez, the corpulent and oft-injured lefty whose funky delivery should baffle hitters who aren't used to seeing him. It was tough enough for those who were familiar with him; after the All-Star break last season, National League rivals batted a combined .172 against Fernandez, lowest in baseball for that period. To help repair an Oriole bullpen that unraveled over the last 94 games—closer Gregg Olson missed 51 games with an elbow injury—Baltimore signed Smith to a one-year, $1.5 million contract. While Smith no longer throws as hard as he did in becoming the alltime save leader (401), the 6'6" reliever had 46 saves for the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Yankees last season, has shed 11 pounds—to 258—and still has a dominating presence.
It must have been devastating for Jacobs to be forced to relinquish this gold mine of a team. The Orioles drew 3.6 million fans in '93, and with more than 3.2 million tickets already sold, they expect to attract 3.8 million this season. Baltimore was the most profitable team in baseball last year, netting between $25 million and $30 million. That means the franchise sale price of $173 million, the most ever for a sports team, was a relative bargain. As the city's only major league franchise, the Orioles are embraced as a civic treasure—and that affection spreads to the Washington area, where 30% of the team's paying customers come from. There are 27,500 season-ticket holders, with 10,000 waiting on deck.
Angelos, 64, has been a fan of the Orioles since their arrival in 1954, but he didn't consider purchasing the team until January 1993, when the protracted efforts to sell the club had narrowed to several groups of out-of-town suitors. "That rankled me. I couldn't accept that," says Angelos, who eventually put up more than $40 million of the purchase price, $20 million more than the next largest investor among his 20 partners, novelist Tom Clancy. "The team was going to an out-of-town group by default. It wasn't a good reflection on our town, or our state, to sit passively by and let this happen."