Here come the big, bad Washington Nationals Tuesday to Baltimore for their annual visit to the land they crushed, Camden Yards.
Like Genghis Khan invading Asia, the Nationals arrived in the Orioles’ backyard in 2005 and proceeded to ransack and pillage the land, decimating the devoted fan base for the once-proud franchise.
They used to fill Camden Yards every night. Then the Montreal Expos relocated to Washington and robbed the Orioles of those sold-out crowds.
Their ruler, Orioles owner Peter Angelos, did what he could to stop the invasion and protect Orioles fans. He shouted to Major League Baseball and anyone who would listen that his team would lose 25% of their fan base from the Washington area because of the presence of the Nationals.
When they knew they were going to lose, Angelos negotiated terms of surrender that would help care for those fans and insure the continued success of the organization. That deal would be known as the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network — MASN.
This story is a fairy tale, but it is one that some Orioles fans still cling to as a driving force for the demise of their baseball team over much of the tenure of Angelos’ ownership — 19 losing seasons since 1998.
The year before was their high point, drawing 3.7 million fans in 1997 to the ballpark that changed baseball when it opened in 1992. Now they are cellar dwellers in attendance, drawing 1.6 million in 2018, 1.3 million fans in 2019 and, after the Covid year of 2020, drew just 793,229 last season, less than 10,000 fans a game.
Who’s to blame?
Angelos claimed his business would be severely damaged by the presence of a baseball team in Washington. He claimed that 20- to 25% of the team’s fans were from the Washington suburbs, the District and Northern Virginia.
This was a lie.
“It was a made-up number, a total fabrication,” said one former club official.
Officials seeking the return of baseball to the District conducted an independent study of the Orioles’ fan base — specifically season ticket holders — in those areas, contracting with an outside firm.
Those results? Four percent. That’s right. Four percent.
Even if you allow for what the researchers called the “margin of error,” to be, let’s say 100% — that would mean 8%. That’s another world from 20- to 25%.
Angelos didn’t create this lie. It started back in the Edward Bennett Williams days. But he had no problem using it when it served his purposes.
After all, the Angelos family is well-versed in the practice of lying. Just ask one of his sons, Lou Angelos, who is suing his brother John and accusing him of lying. Or ask their mother Georgia Angelos, who says Lou is a liar. Peter Angelos? He’s ill and hasn’t been heard from for years. The next time you hear from him is when he passes away and the team is put up for sale, as per the instructions in his will.
Major League Baseball certainly didn’t believe Angelos when he made his case against a team in Washington. The cursed MASN deal originally was to be 50/50 ownership between the Orioles and Nationals. That deal was ready to be signed when, at the last minute, Angelos went to Major League Baseball headquarters in New York, burst into Chief Operating Officer Bob DuPuy’s office and threatened the ex-Marine with the full force of the Law Offices of Peter Angelos. DuPuy caved, and that’s how you got the initial MASN deal that gave the Orioles 90 percent ownership of the network, compared to 10 percent. That Nationals piece of ownership would grow one percent a year, eventually be capped at 33 percent. That’s how you wound up with this continual bitter legal battle between the two teams over more than $100 million in MASN revenue.
There is any number of reasons for the demise of the Orioles franchise that have had far more impact than the presence of the Nationals. The most obvious, of course, is the incompetence of the Baltimore franchise under Angelos ownership.
Save for their five-year run of success under Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter from 2012 to 2016, the team has put a losing product on the field since 1998. And in their best season in that Duquette-Showalter era – 2014, when they won 96 games and reached the American League Championship Series – Baltimore drew 2.5 million fans.
Down the road, the Nationals also won 96 games and the National League East Division crown. They drew 2.6 million fans.
You want to see a team that hurt the Orioles? Look next door at M&T Bank Stadium and the Baltimore Ravens. The Orioles’ rise in attendance coincided with the demise and then the departure of the Baltimore Colts in 1984. With no NFL football in town, the baseball team made hay, particularly with the opening of Camden Yards in 1992. When the Ravens arrived in 1996, it would soon coincide with the hard times on the field for the baseball team starting in 1998. It didn’t help that the Ravens had instant success, winning the Super Bowl in 2000.
Baltimore and its blue-collar fan base were faced with a decision about where to invest their season-ticket dollars. The Ravens made it easy to decide.
There have been the other factors for the downfall of the Orioles that have been debated of late — the impact of the Freddie Gray riots, the fear of crime in the city — but the Washington Nationals as plunderers? A myth, perpetuated by the family that doesn’t even believe each other anymore.
⦁ Hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.