May 29, 2024

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The Sports Fanatics

Modern sports ownership at its finest.

On Monday morning, it was neither depressing nor embarrassing to be a fan of the Baltimore Orioles. The young, feisty team was coming off a weekend sweep of the New York Mets that left them with the best record in the American League, 70–42, three games ahead of the second-place Tampa Bay Rays. Everyone from 22-year-old budding superstar infielder Gunnar Henderson to 33-year-old backup catcher James McCann was hitting; the agonizingly erratic rookie pitcher Shintaro Fujinami, picked up as a midseason reclamation project from the terrible Oakland A’s, had pounded the corners of the strike zone with a fastball that reached 102 mph.

Then came the news that the team had secretly suspended one of its broadcasters, Kevin Brown, as punishment for remarks he had made on the air before a game against the Rays. Even as the story marched its way up the scale of verifiability and prestige—advancing from a claim from a local sports blogger on Twitter to a report on Awful Announcing to a story in the Athletic, picking up detail as it went—it remained almost unbelievable. What Brown had said, reportedly bringing down the ire of Orioles acting owner John Angelos, was this, in a segment with fellow announcer Ben McDonald:

[Orioles manager] Brandon Hyde has felt that this has been maybe the toughest ballpark to play in. But the Orioles have a chance to do something special today. They’ve already clinched at least a split in the series, winning two of the first three. And they could pick up a series win behind Tyler Wells today.

It’s been a minute. The Orioles split a two-gamer with the Rays in June. They had lost their last 15 series here at Tropicana Field. You have to go back to when our now-colleague Brad Brach picked up a win in the series finale June 25, 2017, the last time the Orioles won a series here in St. Pete. They’ve already gone 3–2 at the Trop this year after winning 3 of 18 the previous three years combined. It is a stark difference, Ben, and it is not a bad Rays team. It’s not like all of a sudden the Rays became slouches in the American League East. They’ve led this division every day but now two, and the Orioles once again are back alone in first place. 

The casual observer might notice that Brown was praising the Orioles here, celebrating their arrival as a top competitor in their division. He was talking about their past failure entirely as a way to praise their current success. (In fact, he misspoke and accidentally softened the record of failure: As the on-screen graphic showed, the Orioles had really won only 3 out of 21 games at Tropicana Field.)

On Tuesday night, the crowd at Camden Yards made their anger unambiguous:

Outraged fellow announcers around the game laid into the Orioles for the move. As Michael Kay of the Yankees noted, while calling the Orioles “disgraceful” and “minor-league,” there was no evidence that Brown—an upbeat and agreeable announcer, not to be confused with the wall-punching former ace pitcher of the same name—had gone even the slightest bit rogue. The numbers Brown cited came from the team PR department’s own pregame notes, and were accompanied by a pre-assembled graphic. The whole thing was a capricious, irrational bit of tyranny.

For Baltimore fans, and for the baseball-announcing community, it wasn’t even a novel one. Back in the ’90s, John Angelos’ father, Peter Angelos—the now-incapacitated owner of the team—picked a one-sided fight with the Hall of Fame–bound announcer Jon Miller, one of the greatest baseball voices of all time, for supposedly not boosting the team enough. The elder Angelos kept Miller dangling in the offseason without a contract renewal until he took a job with the San Francisco Giants, at which point Angelos declared that Miller had always meant to move out West anyway. (Miller kept his home in Maryland for several years afterward.)

But the complaint against Brown was ominous for sports fans beyond Baltimore. The Orioles, in addition to providing a theater of boorish ownership, are an ongoing case study in contemporary sports management.

After the last successful version of the team—which led the majors in wins from 2012 through 2016—collapsed in a catastrophic 2018 season, the franchise brought in Mike Elias, the scouting director and assistant general manager of the Houston Astros, to be its new general manager. The story was that Elias was there to implement the Houston model: After their own collapse, losing 106 games in 2011, the Astros had hired general manager Jeff Luhnow to rebuild everything from scratch. Rather than trying to fix things all at once, or even partly at once, Houston lost 107 games the first year of the new administration, then 111 the next, before beginning a steady climb to a World Series championship in 2017 (albeit with the help of a sign-stealing scheme for their hitters and suspiciously sticky baseballs for the pitchers).

Even given the Astros’ success, and setting aside the scandals, the value of the Houston model is debatable. All those losses, in all those noncompetitive seasons, were still real baseball games, even if the team was all-but-officially not attempting to win. The owner got several years of collecting major-league revenue without spending money on a major-league payroll; the general manager got to take an extended holiday from competing against other teams to identify and sign effective major-league players. The pattern of austerity, destruction, and limited accountability is scarcely limited to sports. As the reporter Evan Drellich noted in his book about the Astros, Winning Fixes Everything: How Baseball’s Brightest Minds Created Sports’ Biggest Mess, before he became a baseball executive, Luhnow was a consultant for McKinsey & Company.

And the Orioles, for all the talk, did not really follow the baseball part of the Astros model. Where the Astros spent their extra losing years giving full-time major-league playing opportunities to their 22-year-old prospects, the Orioles bottled up their best minor-leaguers to keep them from accumulating big-league service time, thereby delaying their eligibility for arbitration and a competitive big-league paycheck. When catcher Adley Ruschman, the top pick in the 2019 draft, finally got called up to the majors last year at age 24—a month and a half into the season, and a year or more after he was clearly ready to compete with big-leaguers—he was the only player on the entire roster under the age of 25, on a team four years into supposedly rebuilding around youth.

What the Orioles did do, unquestionably, was cut costs. At the time, the Angelos family was embroiled in a squalid internal struggle between John and his brother, Lou, for control of the team, while also waging a protracted, losing war against the Washington Nationals over how to divide the revenue from the Angelos-owned network that carries both teams’ games. The more paranoid or traumatized fans noticed that the Orioles were arriving at the end of their 30-year-lease on Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and speculated that John Angelos, who is married to a Nashville-based country-music manager, might be stripping the team to attract investors to help him move it to Tennessee.

Whatever the underlying motives, for three full years and into a fourth, the only identifiable effort Orioles management put into the major-league team revolved around slashing the payroll as close to the theoretical minimum as possible. When players became eligible for arbitration and a pay raise to match their productivity, the team simply cut them loose without making an offer. The remaining talented holdovers from the pre-Elias teams—including the entire starting outfield of this year’s winning squad—played on dirt-cheap contracts, surrounded by hapless retreads, as attendance plummeted. Center fielder Cedric Mullins hit 30 home runs and stole 30 bases in 2021, accounting for 15 and 55 percent of the team’s total output in those categories, respectively, while the team lost 110 games.

And now, after all that misery, the Orioles are winners again. The young players who’d been stuck in the minors have turned out to be more than ready to play. The front office has shown that it can make canny, effective pickups if it tries. The unavoidable conclusion is that before this, management wasn’t trying.

Orioles fans can be happy with this season while still being upset about the history of losing that came before it—a history that Brown could hardly avoid mentioning, and which he could have described in much grimmer terms without being unfair. But the team that supposedly didn’t mind losing is now punishing him for bringing up the losing. The Orioles evidently want to collect the praise for being geniuses at slash-and-burn sports management while denying that they slashed or burned anything at all.

When players lose games on purpose, they’re banned from the game for eternity. When owners and executives do it, they get credit for good intentions, no matter how thin the evidence of that goodness may be. Mike Elias is currently a strong candidate for 2023 Executive of the Year. He’s also, at the moment, 91 games under .500 as general manager of the Orioles. Was all that losing worth it? Was all that losing even necessary?

As of Monday, the Orioles debuted a new answer to those questions: All what losing? Rather than defending his team’s recent history, John Angelos simply declared it off limits. For broadcast purposes, the losing never happened. If you can’t talk about it, no one can complain about it.

Tom Scocca is the editor of the subscription-supported newsletter Indignity, where a version of this item appears.