Proceed with caution, but John Angelos selling Baltimore Orioles to David Rubenstein could be great for MLB fans

Baltimore Orioles
Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Many Baltimore sports fans woke up Wednesday morning to a highly anticipated alarm bell: “Ding dong, the witch is dead, the witch is dead, the witch is dead.”

After three decades of the Angelos family’s reign of ineptitude cascading down on the beloved Baltimore Orioles, it appears that the franchise is about to be sold to a local billionaire on a white horse.

Oh, happy day, is the common sentiment for Baltimore and for Major League Baseball.

Yet, as your friendly Charm City skeptic, I believe it’s important to throw a dash of shade on this infusion of sunshine.

Because whenever there is a potential changing of the guard, there must also be an accompanying warning to “be careful what you wish for.”

For several reasons. Let’s start with the basics.

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John Angelos finds new owner for Baltimore Orioles

baltimore orioles
Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The story, as first reported by Puck News, is that Orioles chairman John Angelos has agreed to sell 40 percent of his family’s stake in the team to a group led by Baltimore native and billionaire private equity investor David Rubenstein.

Rubenstein, 74, will be the control person for a consortium that also includes billionaire investor Mike Arougheti and Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr., as first reported by the Baltimore Banner.

Since the Angelos family currently owns 70-plus percent ownership of the club, it will hold onto more than 30 percent until its patriarch, incapacitated attorney Peter Angelos, passes away. Then, the rest of their stake will be sold to Rubenstein’s group.

The key phrase in this whole arrangement is “agreed to.”

This sale is not official yet. And besides failed player physicals, there’s nothing that defines the Angelos’ family tenure with the Orioles more than failed agreements. So, “expected sale” is the hedge that needs to be used at this moment.

In the past two decades, there have been countless false rumors about the Angelos’ family selling; this one is different, of course. It has a name and a figure ($1.725 billion) attached to it. And it connects so many dots.  But, as we saw with the protracted lease negotiations concerning Camden Yards, nothing is official with John Angelos until everything is signed, even if it is displayed on a massive videoboard.

There’s also the matter of approval from MLB’s other 29 owners before Rubenstein can officially take over. That process will take time, but it would seem like a formality given Rubenstein’s credentials and financial oomph and the Angelos’ family’s status as a certified interloper at MLB’s ownership table.

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I wouldn’t be surprised if baseball commissioner Rob Manfred bought cases of champagne and a truckload of ice Tuesday night in anticipation of finally seeing that name in his rearview mirror.

Who is David Rubenstein and will his approach work?

But back to my cautionary tale for a moment:

Rubenstein is a self-made billionaire, a longtime Orioles fan and a gracious philanthropist. He seems to be exactly what Baltimore ordered for a new owner.

But those same words were used back in 1993, when Peter Angelos rescued the franchise from bankruptcy court for a record $173 million. Initially, the elder Angelos was everything Orioles fans had hoped: He possessed a deep interest in the team and even deeper pockets. Let’s not forget the club once had the highest payroll in baseball in the late 1990s.

All of that came crashing down, however, as time passed. The sport’s ballooning economics left the Angelos family in its wake, and Peter Angelos’ unwillingness to either strip down the club fully and rebuild it or keep pace with the big spenders led to zero winning seasons from 1998 to 2011. The half-in method almost never is successful in any endeavor.

Rubenstein has a lot more cash than the Angelos family – Bloomberg estimates his net worth is $4.6 billion – and that is encouraging. Only time will tell, however, whether he invests in payroll to keep a skyrocketing Orioles club on the right path. Time also will tell whether Rubenstein is a meddler, like Peter Angelos was often characterized (sometimes unfairly), or whether he becomes an enigmatic character who deplores straight answers like John Angelos.

Baltimore will certainly take that risk in hopes of sustained success on the ballfield, but Rubenstein is an unknown in sports ownership circles and that bears considering.

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Final thoughts on Orioles sale to Rubenstein

One last thing here: For all of John Angelos’ warts, specifically his penchant for not telling the truth and hoping others won’t remember, he made a promise in 2018 when he and his brother, Louis, hired Mike Elias as the Orioles’ general manager.

They said they would fund Elias’ vision and get out of his way. And they did that. Elias has quickly become one of the most respected GMs in the game, and he has done a tremendous job of hiring around him, from analytics guru Sig Mejdal to manager Brandon Hyde to international director Koby Perez.

The Angelos brothers allocated money for Elias to overhaul the franchise’s analytics and amateur scouting operations and to resuscitate an international pipeline that had been severed years before by Peter Angelos.

From that aspect – letting the baseball people do their jobs – John Angelos’ tenure since 2017 was sublime. That philosophy led to a 101-win season in 2023 and baseball’s best farm system.

His tenure, however, also has been plagued by missteps, from the continual mismanagement of MASN to being sued by his brother to his suggestion that the only way to offer extensions to budding stars is to pass those costs onto the fans via ticket prices.

And, of course, there was his deranged rant on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2023, in which he chastised reporters for asking baseball questions at a conference he set up, and then offered the unprecedented and unprompted promise that he would show reporters the team’s financials at a later date – which never came to fruition.

The question that set him off that day was whether his family was willing to commit to owning the Orioles in one year, two years, five years or 10 years down the road. He said he would answer it; he never did.

And now a year later – and two months after reportedly telling Maryland Governor Wes Moore that the franchise absolutely was not for sale – it appears the Angelos family is moving on from the Orioles. Or at least dropping into minority ownership for a spell.

Despite my above caution, this should be a great development for the Orioles and for Major League Baseball. Because Rubenstein and his ilk are exactly who should be owning sports franchises these days. There won’t ever be a salary cap in MLB, so what the sport needs is owners who have the wherewithal and passion to truly spend on the product.  

That doesn’t necessarily mean for free agents but primarily for homegrown players. That’s what baseball needs most: Smaller-market teams to draft and trade well, rebuild and then reward their up-and-comers with extensions that keep them with one franchise for a decade.

MLB is thrilled with clubs such as the Cincinnati Reds, the Milwaukee Brewers, the Arizona Diamondbacks and, yes, even the big-market Atlanta Braves, who have made it a priority to lock up young talent.

The Orioles weren’t going to do that with John Angelos in charge. It was obvious he didn’t feel the risk was warranted and/or financially obtainable for his family. The Cleveland Guardians’ and Tampa Bay Rays’ way of doing business – build, trade, recycle – seemed a more likely blueprint in Baltimore.

That, however, is a tough line for a team’s fans to swallow. Watch Gunnar Henderson, Adley Rutschman and Grayson Rodriguez grow before your eyes and then watch them leave as they get riches elsewhere.

If Rubenstein and his group do that one thing – lock up promising players early even if some ultimately fail to fulfill their promise – it’s a huge step in the right direction for this franchise.

It’s what MLB wants. It’s what most players want.

Frankly, after all this time in the wilderness, it’s what Orioles fans deserve. It’s the one missing piece in Elias’ franchise revival, and it now could be one sale away.

So, ring that freedom bell with optimism – ding dong – yet understand nothing is guaranteed.

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