This week marks the 17th anniversary of the Baltimore Orioles being purchased by the group led by lawyer Peter Angelos.
In August of 1993 Angelos and his group of minority owners that at the time included writer Tom Clancy bought a team that was enjoying their second season in a baseball stadium that had launched a new era in sports stadium construction and was without question one of the premier franchises in all of sports.
Under the direction of managr Johnny Oates and led by third year pitcher Mike Mussina and future Hall of Fame shortstop Cal Ripken, Jr., the 1993 Baltimore Orioles finished tied for third in the American League East with an 85-77 record.
Though the team lost 13 of their final 19 games to finish 10 games behind the division champion Toronto Blue Jays, attending baseball games at Camden Yards was a happening. The Orioles finished second in the American League with an overall home attendance of 3,644,965 (45,000 per game).
Despite an overall downturn in baseball attendance over the next few years brought on by the strike of 1994, there was no decline in fan interest in Baltimore. Over the remainder of the decade, the Orioles finished first or second in the American League in attendance every season, including leading the league for four straight seasons between 1995 and 1998.
Baltimore thrived early in the era of Angelos as they made the playoffs in 1996 and 1997 and reached the American League Championship Series following the 1997 season.
However, 1997 proved to be the on-the-field peak for the Orioles as they went 79-83 in 1998 and have not had a winning record since.
In the first few years of the decline, the Orioles continued to throw big money after veteran players including Albert Belle, B.J. Surhoff, Miguel Tejada and Eric Davis to stay competitive, but the team was unable to regain past form.
Baltimore fans initially showed little concern as the Orioles continued to rank among the top two in the AL in attendance through 2000. In 2001, the final year as an Oriole for Ripken, the team finished a dismal season with a 63-98 record and slipped to fourth in the AL with overall attendance of nearly 3.1 million.
Over the next few years as the team continued to struggle on the field, a strange new phenomenon started popping up at Orioles games. Where it was once almost impossible to get tickets without calling weeks in advance, suddenly you could walk up on game day and get a great seat. When watching on television it became common to see large sections of green seats where there once had been loyal fans.
Attendance fell to 2.68 million in 2002 and by 2006 the Orioles ranked 10th in the American League with total attendance of 2.15 million.
In 2008 total attendance fell below two million for the first time at Camden Yards and at the current pace the Orioles will be fortunate to crack 1.8 million for overall attendance in 2010. Angelos will certainly blame some of the attendance loss on the addition of the Washington Nationals to the market, but the slide was happening long before the Nationals came to town.
It is easy to blame Angelos for the decline of the Orioles and he certainly deserves a share of the blame.
As the team aged in the late 1990s he was unable to keep in place a management team that could set a direction for the squad. Through the middle of the 2000s the team seemed unable to understand that they needed to stop bringing in big-name veterans who were past their prime and instead create a long-term strategy to contend.
The public feud between Angelos and manager Davey Johnson that led to Johnson leaving after the 1997 season seems to have been a pivotal moment in the history of the franchise and the tenure of Angelos as owner.
Baltimore appeared to have the ingredients to continue challenging the Yankees for supremacy in the AL East, but after Johnson left the team took a nose dive from which they have never recovered.
Of course baseball also has changed quite a bit in the 17 years since Angelos took control of the Orioles.
In 1998 the Orioles had the largest payroll in baseball at slightly more than $70 million. The Yankees ranked second with a total payroll of $63.1 million.
With no cap to control salaries, the Yankees have steadily increased their payroll to more than $206 million for 2010 (the third straight year they have a team payroll above $200 million).
The Orioles have generally maintained their payroll between $65 and $95 million depending on the year, but the gap between the Orioles and the Yankees has continued to increase. In 2007 the Orioles had a payroll of $93.5 million that ranked 10th in baseball. However, that payroll was $96 million behind the Yankees.
In 2010 the Orioles have the worst record in baseball, but rank 17th in total payroll at $81.6 million.
In 2007 Angelos hired Andy MacPhail to run baseball operations and for the first time in more than a decade the team had a strategy for building the franchise back to respectability.
However, while MacPhail has done a nice job restocking the minor leagues, his rebuilding has yet to translate to victories on the field. The team remains hesitant to sign big-name free agents who are in their prime and instead spend slightly less money to bring in veterans who are on the decline of their careers.
It is unclear if Angelos and MacPhail are unwilling to spend money on big-time free agents or if they have simply been waiting for the right time and the right players.
Regardless, as the decline in attendance has illustrated, the decade of decline has wilted away a previously strong fan base.
There also have been questions regarding the relationship between Angelos and the most notable Oriole of the last quarter century, Cal Ripken, Jr. There have been multiple reports that Ripken has tried repeatedly to join the front office, but has been rebuffed by Angelos.
Whether that is true or not, Angelos would be well served to bring Ripken back into the organization in some meaningful way as he is a bridge back to the fans of Baltimore.
It has certainly been a long and winding 17 years since Angelos first assumed control of the team. Some hope his 17th anniversary as the owner is his final one, but that seems somewhat unlikely.
The best that can be hoped for is that Angelos and MacPhail agree to make whatever moves are necessary to help the Orioles start the journey back to baseball respectability and relevance.