An Owner Who Won't Play Ball With The Other Boys

Twenty-seven major league teams made baseball history last week, suiting up replacement players for spring-training games. Only one team declined to dip into baseball's bargain basement. The Baltimore Orioles fielded no wishful thinkers, and their first dozen games were promptly canceled. This defiant stand was the express command of team owner Peter Angelos, who immediately became a hero to the minor-leaguers working out in the Orioles camp. According to Orioles' general manager Roland Hemond, who has been around baseball for 44 years, the players hold Angelos ""in high respect. He has the courage of his convictions.''

In his rookie season as owner of the Baltimore Orioles, Angelos was pretty much indistinguishable from the other suits whose stewardship of baseball has helped produce the current disaster. He spent lavishly on free agents. He publicly insulted -- and, ultimately fired -- his manager. And, even with superstar Cal Ripken in his lineup, Angelos was the undisputed lord of Camden Yards. But this spring he is a singular presence inside -- or, more accurately, outside -- the owners' camp. Under increasing pressure and the implicit threat of retaliation, Angelos has refused to make plans to begin this season without the striking ballplayers. ""That approach does violence to the integrity of the game,'' he says. ""The best baseball players in the world can't be replaced. The idea is absolutely foolish.''

Foolish or not, baseball appears to be moving inexorably toward that solution. Last week the two sides briefly mistook a rare patch of civility for a major breakthrough. But the progress proved modest, though the union did accept a year-old proposal for revenue sharing among teams. ""We got the air clear on some things and now we're moving along,'' said Colorado Rockies owner Jerry McMorris.

Ending the strike will be impossible as long as there are four sides negotiating at the table. First, there's the players' union, with the longest current winning streak in labor history,unwilling to roll back the gains of 20years. Then there are the three groups of owners. The so-called moderates, of which McMorris is one, have been leading the negotiations recently with little luck. There are the ""hard-liners,'' led by Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who seem determined to bury the union and spit on its grave. Then there's Angelos.

That he is now baseball's preeminent recalcitrant is a logical extension of everything in Angelos's life. His father, a Greek immigrant, owned a Baltimore tavern frequented by blue-collar workers. Angelos, 65, began his legal career representing construction unions and got rich -- rich enough to pay a record $173 million for the ball club -- representing workers exposed to asbestos. Angelos's roster of investors includes such celebrities as film director Barry Levinson and blockbuster novelist Tom Clancy. But friends describe him as a man who never forgot his roots. Adds Levinson, whose movies like ""Diner,'' ""Tin Men'' and ""Avalon'' celebrate Baltimore's regular folk: ""He's very much a Baltimore guy.''

Angelos has not lost sight of his role as custodian of perhaps the most estimable sports record of the modern era -- Ripken's bid this year to surpass Lou Gehrig's 2,130 consecutive games played. ""It's my responsibility to see that Cal's unbelievable streak is not in any way aborted,'' he says. ""It never will be repeated given the demands of the game, and it would be a disaster for it to be lost because of a management dispute.'' But his fellow owners seem inured to, and unembarrassed by, disasters. How else to explain Cincinnati's signing of Pedro Borbon, who last pitched in the majors 15 years ago, and whose age, 48, rivals his waist size?

Angelos faces possible fines of up to $250,000 a day and even seizure of his team if he fails to comply with American League orders to play ball. He hasn't been shy in reply; he warned one day that the owners were committing mass fiscal suicide, suggested on another that if Acting Commissioner Bud Selig couldn't survive financially with the Milwaukee Brewers then perhaps his team should move elsewhere.

Angelos says he will use all his skills to push owners to settle the strike. ""The owners may not be more willing to listen,'' he vows, ""but I'm dedicated to the effort to persuade them.'' But baseball today seems dedicated to unhappy endings, and Angelos is likely to find himself just another strikeout victim.