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Thomas Boswell

No Need to Read Between the Lines

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, March 15, 2005; Page D01

The behavior of Peter Angelos toward the Washington Nationals, especially his adamant but specious claim that the Orioles have "exclusive rights" to the entire Washington TV market for their "regional network," continues to befuddle, anger and even sadden many in the upper reaches of the sport.

The Orioles owner's latest action, which borders on the self-destructive, was a full-page "open letter" paid advertisement in The Washington Post Sports section on Sunday in which Angelos brought his line of reasoning out of the shadows. He issued an in-your-face we-own-your-territory manifesto aimed at the very Washington fans whom he claims he still wants to keep as Orioles fans.

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"People in baseball were stunned by that," said one high-placed baseball source. "He's hurting himself. That letter just showed how weak his case really is. And it's got to anger the same Washington fans that he's trying to keep. . . . Besides there are already people in baseball who think [Commissioner Bud Selig has] stretched beyond anything they had imagined to placate Peter."

The final resolution of the Orioles' indemnification will be resolved well before Opening Day. "There's no turning back now. Soon, baseball will have to do what it has to do. And Angelos will have to do what he's got to do," said the source.

And that will almost certainly be bad for Angelos. In a final showdown, every concession he has gained so far will be off the table in a blink if he decides to sue baseball or the Nationals over his delusions of grandiose TV rights.

Angelos has already been granted a minimum selling price for his team far into the future. Yet the more ground Selig has given, the more Angelos has demanded.

"Every time they announce a new [higher] number of season ticket sales for the Nationals, it seems like Peter goes crazy," one executive told Selig recently. When Angelos feels threatened in a fight-or-flight situation, he usually fights -- with litigation. This time, however, the larger legal danger for baseball may actually be in giving the Orioles too good a deal.

Selig will be in Washington on Thursday for a congressional hearing on steroid use in baseball. Ironically, it is another potential conflict with Congress that should worry baseball more -- the game's antitrust exemption. The image of Angelos and Selig dividing up markets on a map stands in defiance of every tenet of free enterprise. When did capitalism die?

"We need to be fair in dealing with the Nationals," said the president of one major league team. "The idea of an industry dividing up territories would be per se illegal in most other businesses. That's practically the classic image of monopolistic behavior."

If baseball wants to keep its antitrust exemption, then the sport shouldn't abuse it. Especially since the victimized team, the Nationals, would play its games about 20 blocks from Congress with plenty of members in the stands.

Angelos's letter may prove a turning point. But not the kind he wanted. Because, by putting his demands, and the bizarre reasoning behind them, into a newspaper he has exposed his franchise to anger and ridicule -- both justified.

"For over 30 years," claimed the Orioles in their letter, "the Orioles have had the exclusive rights to a geographically defined television market that stretches from Pennsylvania through all of Maryland, the District of Columbia, Virginia, Delaware, portions of West Virginia and as far south as Charlotte, North Carolina.

"When the Orioles were purchased by the current ownership group in 1993, these rights were a material element of the franchise value as reflected in the then-record purchase price of $173 million."

These two paragraphs have made the rounds of senior baseball executives and have been met with something between disbelief and pity. "Peter has got this all twisted around in his mind," said the team president. "No one ever promised that Washington territory to the Orioles forever. He's confusing de facto exclusivity -- because there happened not to be any team in Washington for so long -- with real exclusivity.

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