Rosenthal: New ownership offers fresh hope for the Baltimore Orioles

When Peter Angelos bought the Baltimore Orioles out of bankruptcy court in 1993, most of the team’s fans viewed the purchase as cause for celebration. The team was returning to local ownership after five years under Eli Jacobs, a detached New York financier. Writing for The (Baltimore) Sun, the only concern I expressed was that the $173 million sale price — $70 million more than the previous record for a major-league team — would inhibit the franchise from spending on players.

More than three decades later, the Angelos family is taking the first step toward passing control of the team to a group led by two private equity billionaires, as confirmed by The Athletic’s Britt Ghiroli. One of the billionaires is Carlyle Group co-founder David Rubenstein, a native of Baltimore known in part for his charitable endeavors. The team has been valued at $1.725 billion, nearly 10 times the original price. And history, in a sense, is repeating. Most of the team’s fans will be celebrating again. And a Baltimore Banner report that Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr. will be part of the ownership group will only add to their excitement.

Peter Angelos has been incapacitated due to illness since 2018. His son, John, became a polarizing figure after taking over as managing partner in his father’s absence, presiding over low payrolls, suspending a popular team broadcaster and battling with the state of Maryland during lease negotiations in which he sought the ability to develop an area around Camden Yards in a way similar to The Battery Atlanta, a complex adjoining the Atlanta Braves’ Truist Park.

As if all that wasn’t enough, the Angelos family dysfunction spilled into the public in 2022, when Peter’s other son, Louis, sued John, and their mother, Georgia, over control of the team. The case ultimately was settled, but only after Louis accused John of thwarting plans to sell the club and alleging that John had plans to relocate the franchise to Nashville, where he owns a home.

John vowed the team would never leave Baltimore. The Orioles finalized the lease in December. So, why is John selling now? Perhaps because he was not happy with the final terms of the lease, a theory floated by a source with knowledge of the sale discussions. Perhaps because he wanted the influx of cash the family will receive by parting with an initial stake of about 40 percent in the club. Perhaps the family simply wanted resolution while Peter Angelos, 94, was still alive.

That resolution is now within reach. Rubenstein and his principal partner, Ares Management Corp. co-founder Mike Arougheti, will follow the same “path to control” blueprint David Blitzer is using to buy the Cleveland Guardians. Blitzer in June joined the Guardians as a minority investor, purchasing about 25 to 30 percent of the team. It is not yet known when he will take full control of the club, but the path for the Rubenstein-Arougheti group already has been determined. According to the Banner, the group will take full control following the death of Peter Angelos, subject to Major League Baseball approval.

A sale prior to Angelos’ passing was always unlikely. If the family relinquished the club while he was alive, the price would be subject to a full capital gains tax on the difference between the valuation of the team when it was bought and the valuation today. The family, then, will realize a tax benefit by waiting to yield full control.

A new direction is overdue.

For years, the franchise has been in something of an uncertain state, between Peter Angelos’ condition, the lease negotiations with the state and the dispute with the Nationals over rights fees from the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN), in which the teams share ownership. But the Rubenstein-Arougheti group is entering the picture at a moment when the club’s competitive fortunes are rapidly improving. The Orioles last season, featuring a number of young stars, captured their first AL East title since 2014, finishing with 101 victories. It was their highest win total since 1979, before falling to the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs.

The team’s turnaround occurred after a dismal, largely self-induced downturn in which it traded away veterans and averaged 111 losses in the three full seasons between 2018 and ‘21 (the COVID-19 pandemic shortened the 2020 season to 60 games). In the past five seasons, the Orioles have not ranked higher than 27th in payroll. Under Mike Elias, who took over as general manager in Nov. 2018, they have yet to sign a player to a multi-year contract.

New ownership will offer fresh hope. That includes the possibility of signing players such as catcher Adley Rutschman and infielder Gunnar Henderson to long-term extensions, and the additions of big-money free agents who would enable the team to sustain success in the AL East against financial powerhouses such as the Yankees and Red Sox.

This offseason, the Orioles are in clear need of a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher. But they have been unable to trade for such a pitcher and steered clear of expensive free-agent starters such as left-hander Blake Snell. Their only significant addition has been reliever Craig Kimbrel on a one-year, $13 million free-agent contract.

The prospect of change occurring anytime soon under the Angelos family was minimal. But with news of the sale, the franchise’s entire picture brightens. The team’s new lease at Camden Yards is for at least 15 years. It will extend to 30 years if the Orioles reach agreement with the state by 2027 to develop parts of land around Camden Yards. And Rubenstein’s net worth, estimated by Forbes to be $3.7 billion, should enhance the team’s competitive position.

Of course, things do not always work out as expected. Fans likely will view Rubenstein in the same way they viewed Peter Angelos when he bought the team, as a deep-pocketed, civic-minded savior who would restore the franchise to glory. For a time, Angelos was just that. Though he could be impetuous, in his early years as owner he did not operate the team on the cheap. The Orioles were one of the top-spending teams through 2000. They won more games than any team in the American League from 2012 to ’16 while operating with middle-tier payrolls. But toward the end of Peter Angelos’ tenure, after John took over, the tenor around the team changed.

It’s a new day in Baltimore. And while private-equity investors are hardly certain to prove good owners, here’s guessing Orioles fans will welcome change for the sake of change. At this point, it’s a relief.

(Top photo of Orioles fans: Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

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