By DeWayne Wickham
Shortly after Baltimore Orioles’ manager Dave Trembley was fired in the wake of the second worst start in the franchise’s 56-year history, the team suffered a humiliating loss. The Boston Red Sox beat the Orioles 11-0. For the onetime pride of Baltimore, losing is the only thing this baseball team now does well.
Over the past 12 seasons, the Orioles have finished last, or next to last, in its division 11 times. In 1997, the year before this nose dive began, the Orioles won 98 games and lost just 64 — the best record in baseball’s American League.
The fall has been swift and steep.
The one constant throughout this run to futility: Owner Peter Angelos, who clumsily drove off the last manager who had a winning touch. The lesson in watching this debacle from the bleachers: Leadership matters. And how.
We’ve had far too many examples of failed leadership in the past few years, and the wreckage has been strewn wide and far in endeavors more consequential than men running around a baseball diamond. President George W. Bush in Iraq. The titans of Wall Street and the economic collapse. Most recently, BP CEO Tony Hayward and the unthinkable Gulf Coast catastrophe.
But leadership doesn’t just sink ships. It also saves them.
Apple’s Steve Jobs on Monday unveiled his latest marvel: the next generation of iPhone. Ask any Apple shareholder who endured Jobs’ absence from the tech giant whether leadership matters. (For that matter, ask a BP investor.)
And make no mistake, cheering a team on for decades is an emotional and financial investment. Any fan of any sport in any town in America knows this. The return on investment can be high or, as with my Orioles, non-existent. But a worthy franchise can lift a town at its moment of despair, as the New Orleans Saints did for that stricken city. The investment ultimately paid off.
I take no delight in reciting this sorry record of my hometown team. I remember the Orioles’ glorious past; their improbable 1966 World Series win over the Los Angeles Dodgers; their victory over Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine” in baseball’s Fall Classic four years later; and their World Series appearances from 1969 to 1971. From 1969 to 1983, the Orioles were arguably the best team in professional baseball. During that 14-year stretch, the team finished 1st in its division seven times and 2nd six times.
Ironically, in 1997 — the team’s last winning season — the Orioles spent every day of that campaign in first place. Davey Johnson, the team’s manager, was the American League Manager of the Year. But the same day he received that honor, Johnson, who didn’t get along with Angelos, quit. Since that day, the Orioles have had six managers, including Juan Samuel, who was named interim manager to replace Trembley.
That revolving door, and the team’s poor play afield, have turned this once mighty team into a professional sports embarrassment. Even a die-hard fan like me finally had to give up the season tickets I’ve had for 18 years. This investor has cashed out his shares.
I held on to those seats for so long because I didn’t want to be a “fair weather” fan. But the storm clouds have hung over Orioles Park at Camden Yards for so long that it takes the recklessness of a hurricane hunter to cling to the belief that better days are just around the corner.
Of course anyone fortunate enough to own a Major League Baseball franchise has a right to run it any way he sees fit — just not into the ground. That’s what Angelos has done.
It’s too bad Baltimore’s deserving fans can’t fire the owner.