IT IS TIME FOR Major League Baseball to stand up to Peter G. Angelos.
Mr. Angelos, majority owner of the Baltimore Orioles, has used the threat of litigation and a flair for brinkmanship to cast a pall over the start of Washington baseball's first season in 34 years. The city's new team, the Nationals, begins regular season play Monday, with a home opener set for April 14, and it remains without a deal to televise its games. Whatever the local enthusiasm for the Nationals -- and it appears to be enormous -- the absence of a television broadcasting outlet is an impediment that will undercut early attempts to market the new team and give it a running start. This is unacceptable, and it is largely the doing of Mr. Angelos.
Mr. Angelos opposed bringing baseball to Washington on the grounds that it might further damage his Orioles franchise, whose fortunes have nose-dived in the 12 years since he purchased the team. In that he may have a point; last week, the Orioles reported that ticket sales were running 12 percent behind last year's level. He has insisted that Major League Baseball should compensate him for the revenue he believes the Nationals will leech from the Orioles. According to published reports, he has already received from baseball officials a guaranteed minimum price of $365 million should he decide to sell the Orioles. That's more than twice the amount Mr. Angelos paid for the franchise in 1993 -- not bad for a team whose attendance has plummeted on his watch.
If baseball officials want to indemnify Mr. Angelos for his anticipated financial losses, that's fine -- but not if the compensation would come at the Nationals' expense. Yet with negotiations in the eleventh hour, the Orioles' owner has insisted on a prejudicial television broadcasting arrangement that would hold the Nationals' financial fortunes hostage to his own whims indefinitely. Claiming a highly dubious exclusive right to broadcast all baseball in this region, Mr. Angelos says Nationals games could be shown on his own Orioles regional network; in return for airing its games, he says he would offer the Washington team a "fair and appropriate fee" -- but not an equity stake in the network or a percentage of broadcast profits. In fact, such a deal is a rip-off that would deflate the Nationals' value and imperil the task of finding a buyer for the franchise -- an orphan that is now the collective property of baseball's 29 team owners. What prospective Nationals' owner would cede control of broadcasting rights to a rival -- to say nothing of a rival as truculent as Mr. Angelos? Might as well trade away the team's best sluggers and star pitchers.
Mr. Angelos has threatened to sue unless he gets his way. Evidently hoping to avoid the drawn-out, bare-knuckled litigation for which he is notorious, baseball officials have kept negotiations alive. But the talks have gone on for six months, and time's up. The season starts next week, and Washington's baseball-starved fans want to tune in. Lawyers say Mr. Angelos's legal position is weak. It's time for Major League Baseball to fix a sensible broadcasting deal for the Nationals -- whether or not Mr. Angelos will play ball.