The days of the Baltimore Orioles as a modest-budget, middling-attendance, Ma-and-Pa major league franchise are over, according to owner Edward Bennett Williams.
The American League champions are now prepared to go big time in the baseball dollar wars -- both salaries to retain current young Oriole stars and in the free-agent market this winter to acquire new ones.
"The days when the Orioles could stand by and stand pat are done," Williams said in a wide-ranging interview Monday. "We have decided to compete with teams like the Yankees and Red Sox."
If the city of Baltimore -- by its attendance and its TV-radio revenues -- cannot pay the freight for this new concept of "aggressive club management, then Williams said that he is prepared to investigate "all my options."
The options include, in particular, renewed Williams interest, in what has always been his fondest long-range dream: a new stadium -- either between Baltimore and Washington, or in south Baltimore -- that would be the home of a regional, rather than one-city franchise.
Baltimore has been under the attendance gun since the day -- a year ago this week -- when Williams bought the club with the vague and chilly promise that the team would stay in Baltimore "as long as the town supports it."
Williams' unspecific, yet tacit, demands have just jumped.
"This was to be a trail year for Baltimore attendance," said Williams, "and the trial is just about to begin."
After nearly a year of water-testing, Williams has now decided in what direction to point the Orioles in that process of "long, long-range planning" that he calls the core of ownership.
"I didn't get into baseball to finish third," said Williams. "With our (mid-season) signing of Doug DeCinces and Jim Palmer (both to million-dollar contract extensions), we have signaled to our other players, and to all of baseball, that we are committed to being competitive in salaries.
"To have a better team with better players, we must have better revenues. To do this, we need great support from Baltimore, not just good support.
"So far, our attendance is down about 75,000. That's indeterminate. We're just at the testing period now. It's right here. In the next few weeks, we are going to find out a great deal.
"If we get into the (pennant) race . . . and we've just gotta get into the race . . . then we could break last year's attendance (of 1.7 million)," Williams said with a smile.
But what if, two weeks from now, after eight games between the Orioles and the league-leading Yankees, the Birds are 10 or more games out of first?
"If I'm out of the race before September," said the man who bought the O's as sole owner for $12 million, using a multimillion-dollar loan at two points above the prime lending rate, "then I'm dead."
That, no doubt, is courtroom hyperbole. Neverthelss, Williams is more bound up with the Orioles, both financially and emotionally, than he ever dreamed he would be.
In a year, Williams has gone from a delighted novice, who wandered about last September muttering to friends, "How can this team be in first place?" to something of a baseball bluff who now says, "I never dreamed this game could be so complex, yet so comprehensible.
"Personally, I find baseball much easier for me to assess than football," said the 15-season president of the Washington Redskins. "I can see our weaknesses. There's more individual accountability. I don't have to rely on the specialized advice of experts for everything."
Is that, perhaps, why baseball has traditionally had more meddlesome, bungling owners than football?
"Probably," laughed Williams. "I've vowed I'll never put my hand into the machinery again after some of my experiences with the Redskins."
Nevertheless, Williams now feels confident enough to set the Oriole ship's course: spend now, then choose among "options" later.
"There are no plateaus in any form of 'contest living,'" said Williams, using one of his favorite phases. "You either improve or you fall back. That's one reason we have had trouble defending our (AL) title this year. We stood pat last winter, while the Yankees improved themselves.
"If we identify free agents who will help our club, we will compete with anybody to get them this winter. And I mean premium free agents, not marginal ones."
Williams' greatest concern is that his commitment to excellence may be incompatible with having quaint, cozy Memorial Stadium as a home park.
"The Orioles' attendance, even when the team wins the pennant, as it did last year, is always in the middle of the league. That's a problem" said Williams.
"Any owner would love a new stadium, especially if he has a really old stadium," Williams said slyly.
"Memorial Stadium has inadequate parking and inadequate access and egress. Frankly, I don't know if those problems will ever be solvable in that location. Any good crowd poses a problem, and getting 40,000 to see a Yankee game (like the five-game series starting next Thursday) is a big problem.
"Memorial Stadium is a lovely ballpark if you want to draw 1 million a year."
But can you draw 2 million there to finance a more expensive Oriole excellence?
Williams raised his eyebrows in obvious doubt. Is that admissable evidence in court?
"I was leaving a game last week," said Williams, elaborating with a parable. "First, we were stuck in parking lot traffic, then we hit a major detour coming back, out of Baltimore toward Washington. Here we were, late at night, winding through the small streets of an unfamiliar (and rather tough) neighborhood and we came to a railroad crossing. And here comes the train.
"So, we're stuck at a railroad crossing in the middle of nowhere, counting the cars, don't know how late we'll get home, and I just put my head in my hands.
"I asked myself, 'If I were just a fan sitting here in this, would I ever go through it again?'
"We've gotta make life easier for the fan. We've got to get him home and asleep before midnight, even if he's coming all the way from Washington. Otherwise, he's not going to come back,"Williams said.
"The worst thing a baseball franchise can do to its product is to lock the family in its car in a traffic jam and ensure a terrible end to a perfect evening."
Williams is, of course, aware that franchises like Cincinnati and Kansas City have proved that the quicker a family can get into and out of a stadium, the greater distances it will travel to attend. The time saved in transit adds to the effective range from which the team can draw fans. And that means more attendance.
At a moment when Williams is most hopeful that an Oriole pennant chase will boost attendance, he is certainly not anxious to alienate his fans. Nevertheless, this week he was willing to resurrect an idea that as recently as April he had buried: a new stadium midway between Baltimore and D.C., or, at any rate, closer to Washington and with vastly easier transportation arrangements.
"Speaking hypothetically, I think it is now once more within economic feasibility to build a new stadium. I think it could be done," said Williams (after pooh-poohing a run-it-up-the-flagpole plan of six months ago to spend $22 million to renovate Memorial Stadium as "useless to us and only good for the Colts".
"It could be done privately or by a combination of the state, country and city, or by revenue bonds paid off by stadium revenues," said Williams.
"We have gone through a period with interest rates that would have cooled off anybody thinking of building a stadium," said Williams. "Now, you have to wait and see if those lower rates are artificially induced. Will they make another run (up) after the (November) election?"
Williams has a vivid memory of high interest rates. "You would have to be quite sure (of lowered rates)," he said. "I don't want to go through that again."
Every owner dreams of a new stadium, especially one built with taxpayers' money. And any owner who has the leverage to make such a dream come true uses it.
Williams has almost unique leverage because of his unspoken but implicit Washington options -- split schedule, trial games to test RFK Stadium attendance, or even the ultimate threat of a total move of the team if Baltimore can't please him. He can take his time, play his cards slowly.
"The mayor of Baltimore has told me that building a new stadium could be done," Williams said, speaking hypothetically again, and not referring to any concrete plans. "He says it could work on the south side of Baltimore near the Inner Harbor or off the (baltimore) end of Rte. 95. There's also a lot of land in Columbia (Md.)."
Baltimore is acutely aware that Williams, at the moment, holds most of the trumps. And that he is quite willing, in an unabashed, me-first stance, to hold that unspecific word "support" over the city's head like a scythe.
Even Oriole Manager Earl Weaver, watching a smallish crowd file in last week against Minnesota, said, "EBW ain't gonna like this. They (the fans) aren't sittin' high enough in the upper deck to suit him."
While Williams is worried about not losing money, he has also found his new team a considerable aesthetic joy.
He has spent his first year of ownership in a typical (for him) crash course: this time in baseball.
The famed criminal lawyer, and -- at the moment -- eloquent front-man for the "open convention" movement among Democrats, chatters like a fan with a new copy of the Sporting News when he marvels over "the way we seem to have a statistic on every facit of every player in the game.
"Earl's a real student of the computer," he said of Manager Weaver. "He'll know where a certain batter tends to hit when he's ahead in the count in the late innings with men on base, and he'll know where he should be played and pitched," added Williams, like a devotee of George Allen's computer printouts on down-and-distance tendencies.
"The more you know about baseball, the more complex it becomes, but also the more understandable. You feel that you are seeing master moves on top of master moves."
The mentor who has provided Williams with the "open sesame" has been General Manager Hank Peters. "I feel like I've had the game opened up to me from the inside," said Williams, delightedly. "Let's say that I know considerably more about the game than I did a year ago."
Last August, a conversation with Williams about his club could be a bit embarrassing. After all, who wants to hear the Perry Mason of real life ask with genuine perplexity, "Why don't we have any .300 hitters? I thought they were important."
"Many things were totally at war with all my experience of baseball," Williams said.
"I asked Paul Richards about .300 hitters," said Williams with a grin. "He said, 'The question is what is the other team hitting against you. Baseball is pitching."
And Williams discovered he had bought plenty of that.
Now, like any true fan, the new owner is ready, at the drop of a stat, to bore to death any nonfan with the details of how the Orioles' team average has climbed .008 points, which has compensated nicely for their drop in home runs.
In short, the man's got the bug.
"When I bought the team, I thought I might see/ attend 25 games a year," he said. "At midseason, I'd seen 30. And I'd followed a lot more on radio and TV. I was more stirred, more involved than I ever dreamed I'd be.
"I find games on the radio particularly disturbing," he said with a bona fide fan's glint in the eye. "They keep me awake long after they are over and I should be asleep. The radio reaches the imagination more strongly."
Like many another owner -- old or new -- Williams finds his brain running towards those teams that have things his does not. Three matters keep annoying his orderly and ambitious, goal-oriented mind: the New York Yankees' farm systems, the Boston Red Sox' regional drawing power and the Kansas City Royals' model ball park.
He covets them. And what Williams covets, he usually gets. Anyone wishing to see the future direction of the Orioles might take note of those topics which animate Williams.
"Our point of departure is that we have to compete with those teams on the field," Williams said, "so you have to study what makes them strong.
"We don't have a minor league system to match the Yankees. They have seven clubs," Williams said, as though he wishes he could emulate such tacky excess. "But, dollar-for-dollar, we have a better farm system.
"The Yankees have such financial strength that it's hard to compete with them. They plow back such tremendous amounts of money into 'team replacement expenses' (player development) and new agents.
"We will have to have good judgment and a certain luck when we get into the free-agent market. You have to have luck, unless you're like the Yankees and can buy 'em all.
"A big part of the exhilaration of this is challenging, and beating, a team with those resources . . ."
Each weekend, when Williams visits his family vacationing on Martha's Vineyard, he is reminded of the delights of a regional franchise, where fan allegiances have little to do with the name of the town on the team uniforms.
"I'm constantly amazed at how the whole of New England takes the Red Sox to its heart," Williams said. "I see the TV going into New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Maine. They have expanded their market far beyond just one city."
And, it might be pointed out, if Baltimore and Washington were ever combined into one radio-TV package, it would be the fourth-largest market in the country.
No one who knows Williams, a man who has more lines in "Who's Who in America" than Clarence Darrow had in his day, doubts that he thinks long thoughts about a park grander than Memorial Stadium and an attendance greater than "the league average."
Perhaps, in that long run, his greatest use for those two distrustful neighbors -- Baltimore and Washington -- is to see how they can best be played off each other. So that, in the end, he can have them both.
But, in the short run. Williams is less a creature of territorial Realpolitik than he is a man who loves contests and sees a great one near to hand.
No, not the Democratic convention. You see, during eight of 11 days, beginning this Friday, Williams has a most pressing engagement.
"I plan to see both series against the Yankees," he said. "Did they get enough last winter to beat us now in the big shootout?
"I fear them less than I would Kansas City, because, you know, we've had some bad experiences in that park. It's built for speedsters and we're a little slow. But those Yankees are deep and deadly off the bench. In every situation they seem to come at you with devastating power. I just hope . . . "
And with that, Edward Bennett Williams, infected by the baseball bug for only a year, droned on, his silver tongue speaking in a language that Darrow would never understand.