Peter Angelos refused to give up on his Baltimore Orioles in 1996 when his baseball staff believed it was time to tear the team apart. Likewise, he disagreed with similar recommendations last season, hoping against hope that the Orioles might have one more September sprint in them.

This season is different.

Three months after predicting his team might make a run at the New York Yankees, the majority owner of the Orioles now realizes that catching the Tampa Bay Devil Rays could be enough of a challenge for baseball's most disappointing team. In an interview this week, Angelos conceded for the first time that the Orioles have serious flaws. And he said those flaws are so substantial that contending next season might be difficult as well.

"If you look at the performance of some of our starting pitchers and almost all of our relievers, it would seem we're in for a rough time unless there's a major turnaround," he said. "This has been a very disappointing season."

Asked about next season, Angelos paused before answering.

"Based on what we've seen so far, next year does not look promising," he said. "We can't claim we'll be in the playoffs. But again, you never know in baseball. If we can make some trades or acquisitions in conjunction with this large group of young and exciting players in the minor league system, it's possible we could be a contender for the wild card next year."

That Angelos would concede a season with 104 games remaining is an extraordinary statement for an owner who has begun every year with the belief that he had one of baseball's best teams. Even when the Orioles stumbled in previous years, he resisted suggestions from his baseball staff that the team needed a substantial makeover. Instead, he pushed for more, always believing the Orioles were just another starting pitcher or one more hitter from contention.

This time, Angelos agrees that the Orioles, with their 22-36 record (second-worst in the major leagues), are broken and that it may take more than one offseason to fix them. On a gorgeous sunny day, with the corner office of his Baltimore law firm offering a spectacular view of his home town, Angelos leaned back in his chair as he considered everything that has gone wrong with the Orioles.

The pitching staff has been one of baseball's worst (staff ERA: 5.73), the defense has been mediocre, the speed and excitement nonexistent. Because the Orioles have baseball's oldest roster, there's not much hope for immediate improvement. With so many players being signed to long-term contracts or having no-trade clauses, flexibility is limited. And with an $84 million payroll -- the second-highest in the game -- the Orioles were supposed to win this season.

They haven't, for myriad reasons. Right-handed starting pitcher Scott Erickson has two victories, reliever Mike Timlin leads the American League in blown saves and center fielder Brady Anderson struggles to make plays that once were routine.

And then there's right fielder Albert Belle, a $65 million acquisition last winter, who was pulled from Wednesday night's game by Manager Ray Miller (for defensive purposes, Miller said) after not running hard to first base on an infield grounder. Belle is hitting .221 with runners in scoring position.

"We didn't expect that those pitchers who've done well in the past, such as Scott Erickson, would have such a dismal year," Angelos said. "Albert Belle was recognized as the premier power hitter in the American League. Unfortunately for us -- and I think for him, too -- he hasn't been able to approach that level.

"Let's just say I'm temporarily disappointed in Albert, but I'm hoping and expecting he's going to repeat the performance he had last year, when he knocked the fences down in the second half for the Chicago White Sox."

With a dozen players already signed for a total of $46 million in 2000, it will be difficult for the Orioles to improve. Every position player except third baseman Cal Ripken, catcher Charles Johnson and shortstop Mike Bordick has a guaranteed contract for next season, and Bordick's contract will become guaranteed when he gets 502 plate appearances. The Orioles also want Ripken and Johnson back.

Their most marketable players -- B.J. Surhoff, Arthur Rhodes, Mike Mussina, Sidney Ponson and Johnson -- are the ones they want to build around for the future.

But Angelos said he will aggressively seek solutions.

"My goal is to have a winner -- a very competitive team -- on the field every year," he said. "Money is not the object. I think we've already proven that.

"Have we made mistakes in the expenditure of money? Without question. But the mistakes were made in good faith. This ownership will not spare any effort or any dollars necessary to build a winner."

What Happened?

While watching the Orioles stumble this season, it's difficult to remember that two years ago they were one of the game's best teams. They led the AL East from start to finish that year, defeated the Seattle Mariners in the first round of the playoffs and were within a pitch or two of their first World Series appearance in 13 years before losing to the Cleveland Indians in the AL Championship Series.

How did they fall so far so fast?

Did the Orioles collapse because Angelos made poor decisions, or because he hired baseball people who made poor decisions? Did he make a mistake by showing his manager, Davey Johnson, the door in 1997 and by allowing Eric Davis, Rafael Palmeiro and Roberto Alomar to depart via free agency last winter?

Or did age, an unproductive minor league system and the cyclical nature of sports catch up with the Orioles?

Several baseball executives have laid the blame squarely with Angelos, contending he hires good people but doesn't allow them to do their jobs. They say he gets advice from too many people, doesn't listen to his most qualified employees and lacks a feel for the game.

"He's impossible to work for," a former Orioles executive said. "If you make a recommendation, the majority of the time it's either rejected or taken under advisement. You'll wait days until you hear back, and many times the window of opportunity has passed on the deal."

According to some of his former employees, Angelos has over the years rejected several deals that would have improved the Orioles. Among them: outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds for Toronto outfielder Shawn Green; Palmeiro and Alomar for New York Mets first baseman John Olerud, second baseman Carlos Baerga and pitcher Dave Mlicki; pitcher Jimmy Haynes for Seattle's David Segui; pitcher David Wells and third baseman Bobby Bonilla in a deal that apparently could have gotten the Orioles catcher Chris Widger from Seattle or outfielder Jeromy Burnitz from Cleveland; and pitcher Esteban Yan for left-handed pitcher Al Leiter.

After hearing a recitation of those alleged rejected deals, Angelos doesn't hide his anger. He said there's a grain of truth in some of them, but most of them are simply fantasies created by baseball executives.

"Never happened," he snapped. "I keep hearing about all these great young players we could have gotten. It's just not true."

Angelos vehemently disagrees with the perception that he makes every move for the Orioles.

"The contention is that the team as it's presently constituted -- or in past years -- were teams of ownership's creation," he said. "Since we've owned the Orioles, the players have come as a recommendation of the baseball professionals. I examine every proposed move to make sure we're making an expenditure that makes sense. I've been doing this for six years, and it seems to me anyone in six years would learn a little bit.

"On the other hand, most of the player decisions -- if not all of them -- are left to those whose job is to make those decisions. The present team is not a team I put together. The perception that I make all the moves has been generated by certain writers and broadcasters. I contend it's not factual or correct."

Angelos said his biggest mistake last winter was not being involved enough. Angelos has told associates that new general manager Frank Wren, who was given a three-year, $1.35 million contract last fall, had considerable freedom in putting together the team and that some of this season's problems can be attributed to Wren's poor decisions, according to sources.

Among the moves that Angelos apparently points to as Wren's blunders are: the signing of erratic closer Mike Timlin and the failure to sign reliever Alan Mills, who became a free agent and joined the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Angelos and Wren have clashed on several issues in recent weeks. Angelos wanted to release reliever Heathcliff Slocumb. Wren didn't. Angelos made the move anyway.

Wren wanted to fire Miller and make farm director Tom Trebelhorn the manager. Angelos vetoed the move.

Wren has told associates that every move he's made had Angelos's approval. He also has told associates he is extremely unhappy in his job because he hasn't been allowed to make the moves he wanted to make.

"Frank heard the job described to him one way," a friend of Wren's said recently. "He got there and found something else."

However, Angelos believes he allowed Wren more freedom to make moves than he ever allowed former GMs Roland Hemond or Pat Gillick, according to sources. Angelos won't confirm that assessment, but does say he'll be more involved with every decision next winter.

In an interview, Wren was careful with his words: "I am consulted on every decision. That's not to say I agree with every decision."

While publicly declining to blame Wren, Angelos said he will take a different approach next winter.

"I haven't been in my office at the ballpark in over two years," he said, "but I intend to be very much involved in the future. I was involved to a certain level this year. . . . I wouldn't say my involvement this year was at the level I would have liked it to be."

Uncertainty at the Top

Since arriving at the end of the 1993 season, Angelos has fired one general manager (Hemond) and applauded the departure of another (Gillick). Sources indicate he is not particularly happy with Wren, either.

And then there are the managers: Johnny Oates, Phil Regan, Johnson and Miller.

Angelos even fired a pitching coach -- Pat Dobson -- after the 1996 season, and has shown the door to three assistant general managers who are widely respected in baseball circles: Frank Robinson, Doug Melvin and Kevin Malone.

"There's no continuity," Johnson said of the Orioles last winter. "And maybe there never will be."

Gillick, Malone and several other baseball executives declined to be interviewed for this article.

Angelos admits he lost faith in some of his baseball executives, but points to specific incidents that called their judgment into question. He believes Hemond blundered in wanting free agent first baseman Will Clark instead of Palmeiro in 1993. He also believes Hemond erred in not attempting to sign free agent outfielder Ron Gant.

Likewise, he believes Gillick was wrong to allow Kevin Brown and Harold Baines to depart via free agency. Nor, according to sources, was Angelos thrilled with Gillick's acquisitions of Kent Mercker, Jerome Walton, Jimmy Key, Doug Drabek and Joe Carter.

But if Gillick made some mistakes, he did some things right as well. He acquired Bordick and Surhoff. He rebuilt the farm system. And when he departed last winter, he believed the Orioles were headed for trouble. He told Angelos the club was too old, that it badly needed an infusion of youth and speed and that the clubhouse chemistry was increasingly bad.

His last bit of advice was to use the offseason to improve the starting pitching. Wren attempted to sign several starters, but was forced to settle for more offense: Belle, second baseman Delino DeShields and Clark.

A Hands-On Owner

Angelos rolls his eyes as he recalls the first time he vetoed a deal proposed by his baseball staff. It was a $30 million contract for Clark, and even though he was taken aback by the amount of money involved, Angelos said he was inclined to accept the recommendation of Hemond and others.

He had headed a group that bought the Orioles only a few weeks earlier in the fall of 1993, and admitted he knew almost nothing about running a baseball team. So when Hemond and his assistants, Melvin and Robinson, recommended that Clark be signed, Angelos believed it must be a good idea.

Before signing off on the contract, Angelos had one question: Could we examine Will Clark's medical records?

"Clearly, everyone in the room was unhappy upon hearing this," he said. "I was very much surprised. All of a sudden, it appeared I was some kind of a pariah. They all looked at each other as if to suggest that the inquiry represented a serious problem.

"I was astounded at their attitude. It was as if ownership didn't deserve to participate in very expensive baseball decisions. I think ownership should be receptive to the opinions of the baseball professionals. I think those opinions should guide ownership, but those opinions are not incontrovertible."

Angelos vetoed the contract because he believed Clark's medical history made him a bad risk for a long-term contract. He recommended the Orioles go for Palmeiro, who had never spent a day on the disabled list.

As it turned out, Angelos was right about Clark -- and about Palmeiro. Clark eventually signed with the Texas Rangers, where he was on the disabled list five times in five seasons.

Meanwhile, Palmeiro joined the Orioles for five healthy and productive seasons, establishing himself as the most productive hitter in the brief history of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. In five seasons, he played in 127 more games than Clark did, hit 105 more home runs and drove in 156 more runs.

Five years later, the Orioles signed Clark after Palmeiro, unhappy over how he had been treated by the Orioles, joined the Rangers.

To the general managers and assistant general managers and field managers who have worked for Angelos, those first negotiations spoke volumes about how the Orioles would operate under their new owner.

"He wants to be sure about every decision," a former Orioles executive said. "He thinks like an attorney. But in this game, you're never sure. I always had the feeling that he would listen, and then he and his sons and maybe others would get together and decide what to do."

To Angelos, the matter appears to be simple. He wants to put the best team possible on the field, and asks only that his baseball people explain and defend their proposed moves.

He admits that he listens to the advice of others, including sons John, the Orioles' executive vice president, and Lou, who has no official position with the club. Several former Orioles executives say they wonder if the sons have sufficient experience in the game to be so involved in decision-making.

Looking to the Future

Whatever the reason, it's clear Angelos has not yet found a management team to his liking. Angelos won't comment on the future of Miller and Wren, but unless there's a dramatic change in the team's fortunes, it's unlikely either will return next season, according to sources familiar with the owner's thinking.

Whoever Angelos chooses to run the Orioles next season will have a monumental task. Perhaps Angelos is right that the Orioles are at least two seasons away from contending.

In the middle of a terrible season, Angelos still sees better days ahead. If others see an aging Anderson and a pouting Belle, he sees second baseman Jerry Hairston and first baseman Calvin Pickering and pitcher Matt Riley and catcher Jayson Werth -- the crown jewels of the club's minor league system. If others see the rent-a-free-agent Orioles of today, he sees a tomorrow with youth and energy.

"I think we'll be looking to spread our wings in 2001," he said. "I believe by 2001, almost the entire team will be composed of players that are at the Triple-A or Double-A level now. The youth movement is definitely on with the Orioles."

CAPTION: Peter Angelos reportedly is unhappy with some moves made by General Manager Frank Wren, above, such as signing closer Mike Timlin.

CAPTION: "We're in for a rough time unless there's a major turnaround," owner Peter Angelos said.