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BALTIMORE -- Peter Angelos' ability to make gobs of money through his legal practice clearly outweighs his predictive skills -- and, his legion of critics would argue, his ability to run a successful major league franchise.It was easy for Angelos to strut nine years ago, when Camden Yards was spanking new, smart guys like Pat Gillick and Davey Johnson were running the show in the front office and the dugout, and franchise favorites Cal Ripken Jr. and Mike Mussina were locked up to long-term deals. To see how far the Orioles have fallen, you need only buy a ticket to a weekday game in September. Trust us -- they're not hard to find. Monday night at Camden Yards, an announced crowd of 21,742 watched the Orioles lose 9-6 to the Yankees. Judging from the cheers when Alex Rodriguez hit a ball over the right-field fence and Kyle Farnsworth recorded the final out, at least half of were pro-Yankees.
It was enough to make Boog Powell lose his appetite.Baltimore fans have grown accustomed to meaningless games in September. At season's end, the Orioles will be tied with Tampa Bay for the American League futility lead with nine straight losing years. Only the Pirates, who are working on their 14th straight sub-.500 finish, have been more inept.
And now that the National Football League season is under way, the O's are officially an afterthought. On Sunday, the Baltimore Sun dispatched three columnists to Tampa Bay to cover the Ravens' 27-0 blowout of the Buccaneers. The city's baseball team is gradually working its way back toward the high school cross country results.
Some Orioles fans have seen enough. Randy Lotz, a local songwriter, has written a tune called "Let Go of Them O's (Mr. Angelos)." A downloadable version of his song is available for 99 cents on his Web site. Nestor Aparicio, who owns WNST Radio in Baltimore, is organizing a "Take Back the Birds" protest for the 4:05 p.m. game with Detroit on Sept. 21. Aparicio and his fellow diehards plan to assemble at an Inner Harbor restaurant dressed in black (no orange) and march to the park in unison. They'll take their seats in the upper deck, shout "O" during the national anthem, and cheer their lungs out for the local team.
And then, at precisely 5:08 p.m. (the "5" in honor of Brooks Robinson and the "8" for Cal Ripken Jr.), they will leave the park en masse to protest what's become of the team under Angelos' ownership.
While the Orioles privately don't expect much of a turnout for the protest, Aparicio is hoping to attract at least 10,000 dissenters. He denies that his crusade is a radio station promotional stunt. Rather, he hopes to speak on behalf of demoralized club employees, alienated sponsors, silent limited partners and disenfranchised fans who cling to the hope that Angelos will sell the team."The situation is pretty dire unless somebody does something," Aparicio said. "Peter is myopic. He thinks they're going to get Barry Zito this offseason. He thinks if they get off to a 21-5 start next year, the ballpark will miraculously fill up and sponsors will start coming back.
"They're gone and they're never coming back, and Peter is the only one that doesn't understand that. He thinks the ballpark is empty because they've lost for nine years. He doesn't understand how angry people are at him."Angelos didn't return a call from ESPN.com seeking comment.
Another proposed deal would have sent Tejada to Houston for Roy Oswalt, Morgan Ensberg and Adam Everett. But when the Orioles wanted pitching prospect Jason Hirsh instead of Everett, the Astros said no. Houston also got cold feet when word spread that Baltimore might flip Oswalt to Texas.
|Nine straight losing seasons|
Where have you gone, Rick Elder, Mamon Tucker and Ntema Ndungidi?The quintessential Orioles draft came in 1999, when Baltimore had seven picks among the top 50 and selected Mike Paradis, Richard Stahl, Larry Bigbie, Keith Reed, Josh Cenate, Scott Rice and Roberts.
Two picks after the Orioles' haul was complete, Tampa Bay chose Houston high school outfielder Carl Crawford with the 52nd overall pick. Think he wouldn't look good in a Baltimore uniform right now?
When the game begins, it's the same old thing. The Orioles take the lead off Randy Johnson, but the Yankees bat around against Baltimore rookie Jim Hoey in the seventh inning when retread left fielder Fernando Tatis turns a routine fly ball into a bases-clearing double. In the eighth inning, Perlozzo calls on catcher Chris Widger to pinch-hit. Widger strikes out, and is now a career 1-for-44 (.023) against the Yankees.
As the losing mounts, it will surprise no one if Tejada decides to vent again and claim he wants out of Baltimore. Most of his teammates just opt to keep their mouths shut and cope. Unlike the fans, the Orioles players are contractually obligated to show up at the park every day."It's hard for us as players when Boston and New York come in and their guy pitches well and walks off the field to a standing ovation," Roberts said. "As someone who came up through the organization, my goal is to see this stadium packed again with Orioles fans for the right reasons: Because we're winning. It's September in a big series, and our pitcher walks off the mound and he gets the standing ovation." Instead, Roberts looks up and sees a half-filled stadium -- and 50 percent of those fans are doing Derek Jeter "MVP" chants. "I can't stand here and blame fans for making money on their tickets and selling them to Yankees fans when we're 20 games out," Roberts said. "But it does get old." Said first-year Oriole Kevin Millar: "It's a beautiful stadium and a beautiful city. They've had some great tradition here over the years. But the bottom line is, we have to play better baseball and get a winning product to get our fans out to the park."
Until things change, Angelos will be the lightning rod for fan discontent. Orioles fans blame him for focusing on the Washington Nationals rather than his own team's problems. Many regard him as cheap, although you'd think the Orioles' $72.5 million payroll should at least produce a .500 team.
"People here even blame him because the team doesn't have 'Baltimore' on the front of the road uniform. That hasn't been the case since 1972," said an Orioles front office person.
Orioles fans remember 1972 with fondness. Earl Weaver was in the dugout, Jim Palmer and Brooks Robinson were still around, and an 84-win season was considered a downer year in Baltimore.Now this generation of Orioles fans is haunted by a different set of memories: Angelos running Pat Gillick, Davey Johnson and radio broadcaster Jon Miller out of town; the missteps of the Syd Thrift regime; Albert Belle's hip injury; Sidney Ponson punching a judge in Aruba; Sammy Sosa losing bat speed by the hour; and Rafael Palmeiro and those infamous Vitamin B-12 shots.
Many cling to the hope that Ripken will put together a group to buy the team and that pitching coach Leo Mazzone can mold the young staff into winners. For now, the occasional Anna Benson sighting qualifies as a highlight at Camden Yards.
After Angelos' bold proclamation in 1997, hope turned to puzzlement in Baltimore. That gave way to disappointment, which regressed to anger, despair and apathy.
Now everyone but Cindy Sheehan is organizing some sort of protest. Given all the empty seats at the park, Angelos should be grateful that someone in Baltimore still cares.
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.