Ding, dong, the Miami witch is dead—but almost had the Orioles

Loria, prepared to sell the Marlins, once bid to buy the Orioles.

Loria, prepared to sell the Marlins, once bid to buy the Orioles.

You may or may not remember this, but the first time baseball heard of Jeffrey Loria in earnest, it had to do with the Orioles, in the early to mid 1990s, when then-owner Eli Jacobs decided he had no choice but to sell the team in order to raise cash. John Helyar in The Lords of The Realm told the unlikely story, worth revisiting in light of the news that Loria wants to sell the Marlins and stands to make billions from the sale, as if to prove failure is profit.

Jacobs paid $70 million for the Orioles in 1989. The club was worth twice that at least by the time Jacobs decided he couldn’t keep the hounds from the door. What was once his impressive looking business empire collapsed under heavy debt, and his mansion was foreclosed upon for good measure. He’d bought the Orioles out of passion but now the team was his lone valuable asset.

If the Orioles were worth $140 million by 1994, a group led by Bill DeWitt, Jr. was willing to pay it. The son of the man who once owned the Orioles franchise, when they were the hapless St. Louis Browns, DeWitt was the Browns bat boy when subsequent Browns owner Bill Veeck sent Eddie Gaedel, all three foot seven of him, to the plate as a pinch hitter.

DeWitt made his own fortune as a Cincinnati investor whose firm was into things from computers to restaurants, and he wanted nothing more than to add baseball to the folio, according to Helyar. His sentimental attachment to the Oriole franchise led him to see Jacobs; the two were on the verge of a deal that would cost DeWitt’s group $141 million.

Enter Peter Angelos. He was aghast that no Baltimorean seemed interested in trying to buy the team. An attorney who built his practise largely representing workers struggling with asbestos exposure, Angelos discovered Jacobs and his creditors discouraged anyone from the DeWitt group from trying to buy.

Believing that out of towners buying the Orioles equaled turning your city from major league to branch office, Angelos put together a group of locals including novelist Tom Clancy, retired tennis star Pam Shriver, filmmaker Barry Levinson, and sportscaster Jim (The Thrill of Victory, the Agony of Defeat) McKay.

The Angelos group got their shot when Jacobs was forced to bankruptcy proceedings in March 1994, putting the DeWitt group deal on ice and the sale of the Orioles into a judge’s hands. A June hearing not only showed how valuable the Orioles were but led to a bidding war.

Angelos called DeWitt before a scheduled August court auction and insisted he wasn’t going to let the Orioles move out of town. Which suited DeWitt fine, and they agreed to bid together, setting a $151.25 million offer.

Enter Loria, an art dealer whose baseball connection at the time was owning the minor league Oklahoma City 89ers, which he sold in order to have a shot at buying the Orioles. Angelos and DeWitt laid down the $151.25 offer. Loria and his attorney topped it by $100,000. “Angelos and DeWitt would raise to the next million dollar increment,” Helyar wrote. “Then, another $100,000 topper.”

When the bidding reached $160 million from Angelos/DeWitt, Loria upped it by $1 million. It rose in million dollar increments, until Loria’s attorney called for a pause after it hit $169 million.¬†Angelos thought that meant Loria was about to crumple. No such luck. Loria and his lawyer returned to bid $170 million. As surreal as the bidding now seemed, Angelos wouldn’t budge. He made it plain he’d go as high as needed to beat Loria back, and he had the backing of both DeWitt and Bob Castellini, a DeWitt ally who’d eventually come to own the Reds.

The bidding reached $173 million from the Angelos/DeWitt side. Loria finally spoke. “I want to congratulate the Baltimore group,” he said flatly.

Whether Loria really thought he could out-bid Angelos to buy the Orioles seems lost to time. So does whether he was really trying to drive up the price if he suspected he couldn’t beat Angelos out.

After some initial years of success under Angelos’s ownership, the Orioles hit hard times for over a decade and it was even money whether people thought it was because of or despite him. But Angelos also earned praise for being one of the only owners in baseball who appeared not to have pushed to force the 1994 players’ strike. He refused to vote for a salary cap, and he refused to field replacement players to open 1995.

Loria hadn’t been sent gently into that good gray night, alas. In 1999, he turned up as the managing general partner of the Montreal Expos, eventually owning a 94 percent stake in the team. Then he demanded Montreal build him a new park, calling Olympic Stadium untenable—it was both untenable for baseball and unpaid for in full—and Montreal balked at a time when they were struggling to keep hospitals open.

Loria knew how to seed and make the wrong exit from Montreal.

Loria knew how to seed and make the wrong exit from Montreal.

 

Next, Loria sold the Expos to major league baseball in a strange, Bud Selig-brokered deal that enabled Loria to buy the Marlins from John Henry, the price including a no-interest loan from baseball and enabling Henry to buy the Red Sox while changing Selig’s mind about contracting the Expos and the Twins. Henry went on to preside over three World Series winners and an error or two¬†that weren’t even close to Loria’s ability to trip over himself.

The Expos finally moved to Washington to become the Nationals. Loria as the Marlins’ owner became infamous for moves ranging from mere capriciousness to downright imperious, from condescending to boneheaded.

Loria and his stepson president David Samson strong-armed a new ballpark out of Miami—pleading they had to have it to win and make money—by way of a $91 million note that will end up costing Dade County taxpayers $1.2 billion. He took the revenue sharing monies from his fellow owners and pared his player payroll often to where it was barely higher than some single player salaries—until or unless he hiked his payroll rather than let the players’ association and other overseers pore through the Marlins’ books.

He won the 2003 World Series only to preside over that team’s breakup within the next couple of years, earning an infamy matched only by the team’s original owner, Wayne Huizenga, who did likewise after spending big to shoot for and bag the 1997 Series. And he fired longtime, popular television analyst Tommy Hutton when he decided Hutton’s kind of objectivity—non-Marlins fans thought he was a homer; Marlins fans sometimes thought he wasn’t homer enough—was objectionable.

Troublesome bedfellows Selig (left) and Loria, at the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Marlins ballpark.

Troublesome bedfellows Selig (left) and Loria, at the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Marlins ballpark.

He made deals about which “boneheaded” was the most polite adjective; he left his occasional moments of genuine grace—such as paying Jose Fernandez’s grandmother’s way to the States after the popular pitcher was killed in a boating accident last fall—undermined by his cumulative record of half cracked firings, trades, and interferences even with the play on the field.

The only time Loria wasn’t despised as the worst owner in baseball was when Frank McCourt owned the Dodgers and the title. The two did have one thing in common: Bud Selig brokered their ownerships. Loria at least didn’t have to incur the lash of Selig as McCourt did, once McCourt’s blatant abuse of the Dodgers as his personal ATM while cutting badly needed security and services at Dodger Stadium was too much even for Selig to ignore.

On the other hand, McCourt never promised players they’d be Dodgers for the longhaul upon signing them only to trade them after their first season there. Loria did that to Jose Reyes and (more notoriously) Mark Buehrle, trading them to the Blue Jays after one season in Miami after signing them to long-term deals.

Forbes reported Loria’s intent to sell the Marlins on Thursday. The price he seeks: $1.6 million, for a team Forbes valued at $700 million. One day later, Mike Illitch—the pizza magnate who bought the Detroit Red Wings and the Tigers and made clear from the word go he cared about nothing but winning hockey and winning baseball, and was willing to invest to get both (he got four Stanley Cups with the Red Wings and two trips to the World Series with the Tigers)—died at 87.

The contrast couldn’t have been more clear. Detroit and baseball world mourned Illitch. Miami, including no few Marlins players and other personnel, were believed to have been burning up the cell call and text lines in a furious chorus of joy at Loria’s pending departure, even if the actual date is yet unknown and the actual new owner(s) of the Marlins are likewise. “Ding, Dong, The Witch is Dead” might well have been the music playing in the background.

Still, it is to wonder what might or might not have been if Loria instead had gotten his hooks into the Orioles.

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