It’s no secret that most Major League Baseball franchises are owned by more than one person or group. The principal owners of each team usually receive the most attention, but they’re not the only owners with a seat at the table.
Derek Jeter owns 4% of the Marlins. Bill Maher owns a sliver of the Mets. Former president George W. Bush was a minority owner of the Texas Rangers. The family of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos owns a small percentage of the Cubs. The late author Tom Clancy owned about a quarter of the Baltimore Orioles. Major League Baseball teams are very expensive, and that means in most instances, irrespective of your rooting interest, your team has multiple owners.
Now, when you have multiple owners for an enterprise that can be worth over a couple of billion dollars, it’s no surprise that disagreements can happen about how to run the operation. For that reason, MLB’s constitution requires each team’s ownership group to designate a “control person” who shall have “possession . . . directly or indirectly, of the power or authority to influence substantially the management policies of the Club.” As I wrote for FanGraphs,
“The control person is the face of the franchise to Major League Baseball; they’re ‘accountable to MLB for the operation of the team and for its compliance with the rules of baseball.’ In other words, they’re the member of the ownership group the team designates as the person in charge of its operations.”
Derek Jeter is the Marlins’ control person, for example. John Middleton, who owns 48% of the Phillies, is the control person for that franchise. Having a designated control person is important because it ensures accountability to Major League Baseball.
Enter the Baltimore Orioles and principal owner Peter Angelos.
Angelos, a former trial lawyer, was long embattled by the Orioles’ faithful after assuming the reins of the team at a bankruptcy sale in 1993. At first, things went well; the O’s went 63-49 in the strike-shortened 1994 season before back-to-back playoff runs in 1996 and 1997. But then things went awry; the team’s offensive core, led by 37-year-old Cal Ripken, Jr., was aging rapidly, and the 1998 team featured no regular position player under the age of 30 (Roberto Alomar). The team’s big-money gambit in Albert Belle didn’t pay off, and pitching prospects like Sidney Ponson and Daniel Cabrera never panned out.
In the blink of an eye, the Orioled went from AL East juggernaut to perpetual also-ran, with fourteen consecutive losing seasons before bouncing back to the top of the division in 2012. The team fell back a bit to 85 wins in 2013 before a 96-win campaign in 2014 culminated in a run to the AL Championship Series.
Yet by 2017, the team was back to its losing ways, and last year a team billed as a contender stumbled to an unfathomably bad 47-115 record despite having a half-season of Manny Machado. (In case you're wondering, this year’s team is on pace to be even worse, and does have an outside shot at the Mets’ infamous 120-loss mark.)
But last season may have been even worse for the Orioles than fans imagined. At the beginning of last season, reports began circulating that Angelos was ceding the day-to-day operations of the franchise to his sons, John and Louis, as a result of increasingly declining health.
John and Louis have long worked for the team, with the Baltimore Sun once calling them “ownership apprentices”; John even lists himself as an Executive Vice President of the team on his LinkedIn. Meanwhile, Angelos’ health was evidently so poor that despite being a famously hard worker, the octogenarian was no longer showing up to work at his law office. As the team’s wretched season dragged on, Peter’s involvement grew more and more infrequent. By September, the New York Daily News was reporting that Angelos wasn’t involved in running the team at all.
“Above and beyond their horrendous record, the Orioles, once a model franchise in the game, are presently the most dysfunctional team in baseball, with rumors beginning to percolate they might actually have to leave Baltimore if they lose pending litigation with the Washington Nationals over their stake in MASN TV network rights fees. It starts at the top where Orioles owner and CEO Peter Angelos is battling dibilitating health issues and apparently has not drawn up a succession plan, which reportedly has become a grave concern for Commissioner Rob Manfred. As a result, Angelos’ two sons, John and Louis, are running the team but it is not known if they have official authority to make decisions on the future of Showalter or GM Dan Duquette, whose contracts are both expiring at the end of the season”
That revelation led to speculation that Angelos might end up selling the team, perhaps as soon as the 2018-19 offseason. That didn’t happen, of course, but that was only the start of the team’s legal problems. You see, that Angelos didn’t draft a succession plan is problematic in and of itself. But he was also the team’s only designated control person.
If Angelos wasn’t acting in the capacity, MLB had a right to know about it. So earlier this year, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred sent the team a formal demand to identify whether Angelos remained in charge, and to designate a new control person for approval by the other twenty-nine owners as required by the MLB Constitution. The Baltimore Sun’s Jeff Barker provided more details.
“MLB has said it would like the Orioles to name the new executive before the next club owners meeting in June, according to two officials. Several sources cautioned that naming a control person is not the same as designating the ultimate successor to Angelos as principal owner. The latter is part of estate planning that the Angelos family has kept private, saying it would be premature to comment. ‘As far as succession, the league wants to know things are in order,” one source said. “But succession doesn’t happen until there is a succession event.’”
Intriguingly, however, those meetings have now come and gone with no public announcement regarding a control person for the Orioles. That’s not because owners weren’t available to the media, either: topics of discussion included future games in the Dominican Republic, the Yankees-Red Sox London jaunt, and the never-ending debate over the home run surge and changes to the baseball.
Nor were ownership questions off-limits; Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg, for example, came back from the meetings with a harebrained scheme to split his franchise between St. Petersburg and Montreal. At this point, the current situation with the Orioles is so quiet raises more questions than it answers. It’s certainly possible, of course, that the team simply designated a new control person and ended the inquiry.
That’s doubtful. Major League Baseball has long been pressuring the Orioles to drop their longstanding dispute with the Washington Nationals over the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, litigation which has now dragged on for five years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars with no end in sight, lest you think that it’s opportunistic of MLB to use Angelos’ failing health as leverage.
It’s also true that John Angelos isn’t just an executive with the Orioles—he’s also the president of MASN, which would create a rather substantial conflict of interest were he also confirmed as the team’s control person. So it’s thus far been Louis attending ownership meetings as the team’s representative, but Louis is also still a full-time trial lawyer, which creates conflicts of its own.
In all likelihood, we’ll get at least some clarity on this before the General Managers’ Meetings in November, if for no other reason than MLB’s fervent desire not to drag this saga out unnecessarily. Moreover, with so many franchises already facing uncertainty—from the Rays already actively seeking to move, to the Athletics badly in need of a new stadium, and the Marlins drawing a handful of fans only—the last thing Major League Baseball needs is that kind of uncertainty afflicting one of its marquee teams. Still, if resolving this problem were easy, it likely would already have been done, and a sale of the franchise appears more likely than it has at any point in the last twenty years.