Even today, people around football have opinions about Robert Irsay, and not many are favorable. Few imagined that the Colts would ever leave Baltimore, but Irsay did the unimaginable, packing the team's belongings into a fleet of Mayflower vans in the dark of night in 1984 and sending them rolling toward Indianapolis. "India-naaa-plis, you gotta be kiddin'!" cried Rosie the Balimer waitress. Irsay was immortalized in Johnny Unitas's Golden Arm restaurant: The sign on the men's room door read, "The Irsay Room."
Could sports fans dislike Walter O'Malley more than Irsay? Maybe. Especially if you came from Brooklyn or loved the Dodgers. "Brooklyn is a state of mind, not a place," Irving Rudd, the last Dodgers publicist in Brooklyn, once wrote. "It's our team, our game." Sorry to say, it was neither. Before Rudd got the words out, O'Malley was out the door to Los Angeles (but not Rudd, who second-guessed himself only for the few days he was out of work). They were his Dodgers, O'Malley said, sorry about the broken hearts.
Pick your villain: Calvin Griffith, Robert Short. (In Cleveland, it's Art Modell, although I say he tried his best to stay.) There's Al Davis, the first to reverse directions and land where he started. In Boston, Harry Frazee, who sold the Babe, lives in infamy.
Into this pantheon of villains has come Peter Angelos, bulldozing his way toward the throne room, as is his style. Most of the occupants in this Hall of Infamy have earned a place by skipping town with their team. Angelos is different; he is trying to stop a team from moving. In Angelos's mind, there is no room for major league baseball in the nation's capital or even Northern Virginia; he says both are too close to Baltimore and his Orioles, and he seems to wield an awful lot of power among his colleagues and the owners' commissioner, Bud "Light" Selig. Angelos especially covets the fans of D.C.'s Maryland suburbs. No one has been quite so serious about annexing this territory since the British showed up at Bladensburg.
The problem for Washington is that Angelos has more tenacity than the Brits. He has said that a Washington team would reduce his fan base and cut his TV revenue in half, and that neither team could prosper. He is standing firm on that argument, which seems to send shudders through Selig's bones. Are we to expect that at this late date Selig would confront Angelos with the truth, written forcefully and frequently in these pages by Shirley Povich, that Washington is "where baseball belongs"?
What Angelos doesn't say is that maintaining the status quo enables him to operate at his own leisurely pace, putting out a mediocre product while still bringing in ample revenues from TV, the turnstile count and the luxury suites. A leisurely pace can be one of the charms of life in Baltimore, but, really, seven straight losing seasons?
Washington, we know, would be better off without Angelos.
But what about Baltimore?
The Orioles under Angelos have slipped into the company of -- dare we say it? -- Tampa Bay.
They are the B side to the hit tune played by the Atlanta Braves, who are about to win their 13th straight division title.
Maybe the Orioles will yet find their way; Angelos this year installed a two-headed general manager, a first.
Probably, Angelos is going to stick around. He's a Baltimore guy through and through, having grown up in the east side neighborhood of Highlandtown, where people aren't known for backing down from challenges. Everyone knows, especially courtroom foes, that he's a smart, tough lawyer. And for some time now, every indication has been that he is a power hitter in the backrooms of baseball.
The question is: How can he be so powerful that he can hold captive an area the size of Washington and surroundings while presiding over such a perpetually poor product?
Washington has been on the brink of having a major league team before. The Houston Astros were on the way. The San Diego Padres were all but here. So nobody around here is holding their breath. We're talking about baseball here. In relocating the Montreal Expos, baseball is trying to get out from under more of its own mistakes. The problem for baseball is that Washington is the obvious destination for the Expos, but Angelos commands an ear in the commissioner's office beyond all conceivable reason.
To put baseball back where it belongs would mean that the owners and Bud "Light" would have to sit down with Angelos and get him to play ball. For baseball's cartel of owners, this simply may be anathema to their way of doing business. Imagine them trying to suggest to Angelos the notion of competition as something good for his franchise.
Is it a daydream to think that a team in Washington and a team in Baltimore might both be successful? There's enough TV money and enough people around so that, with good management, both teams could win financially as well as on the field. But if the Expos wind up in, say, Monterrey, Mexico, we can put Angelos in his rightful place, next to Irsay, O'Malley, Griffth, et al.