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The Orioles Have Big Dreams And A Small Man In Charge

Felix Bautista after a blown save
Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Tuesday would have been a rough night for the Baltimore Orioles even if management hadn't spent the previous 24 hours in the hospital recovering from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the foot. But after the Orioles in suits took well-deserved abuse from all around the league, the Orioles in jerseys failed to relieve the heat, instead succumbing to a brutal ninth-inning defeat.

We'll start with what happened on the field, because there, at least, fans have the soothing knowledge that tomorrow is another day. The O's, riding the high of a home sweep of the Mets that gave them a season-best three-game lead in the AL East, had to contend next with the Astros, and for a few innings they did so with aplomb. Framber Valdez, after throwing a no-hitter in his last start, got no respect from the young Baltimore sluggers. Ryan Mountcastle—WHAM, a homa. Adley Rutschman—WHAM, another homa. The Orioles led 6-2 after four, and that's where the score stood until the top of the eighth.

Yennier Cano, normally excellent in the penultimate inning, couldn't strand an inherited runner on first. But with a three-run lead still intact, there was no reason to worry. O's closer Félix Bautista had to this point crafted an all-time dominant season, entering Tuesday with an ERA of 0.85 while striking out an overcongested 17.43 batters per nine innings. This night, however, he allowed a walk and a single, came back with a K, then surrendered a long, long base hit that eluded Jorge Mateo's glove. And with the bags loaded, after Bautista threw eight pitches to Kyle Tucker, the Astros clean-up man caught hold of a 100-mph dart and deposited it over the right-center fence. Your final score: 7-6, Houston.

While the Astros' comeback can be chalked up to "That's baseball," the Orioles' above-the-field annoyances are not so easily dismissed. The franchise endured the early part of this week getting roundly roasted by voices of the sport from all over MLB after suspending play-by-play man Kevin Brown for including a few unflattering-but-innocuous historical notes in a pregame segment. This act of pettiness shifted the focus from how the Orioles are better than they used to be to the fact that the Angelos family is as immature and thin-skinned as ever. Fans at the game, even before the mood was soured by Tucker's grand slam, voiced their displeasure with a "Free Kevin Brown" chant from the stands, which came through on the local MASN broadcast as those in the booth—Geoff Arnold, Jim Palmer, and Mike Devereaux—avoided remarking on it. Probably wisely.

There remains abundant anxiety about the long-term direction of this franchise. John Angelos, who runs the day-to-day operations while standing atop the mountain his father built for him, has consistently been whiny, erratic, and cheap, breaking promises about opening up the team's financials while keeping a tiny payroll and haggling for cash from the government. A report from Ken Rosenthal at The Athletic today notes that the Orioles still don't have a lease in place for their ballpark next year, because even after getting a commitment for $600 million in public funds to upgrade Camden Yards, Angelos appears to be holding out for increased control over the property and development around the ballpark. Rosenthal writes that the goal of a lucrative entertainment district like the Braves built in the suburbs is impractical in the much busier heart of Baltimore, and that Angelos lacks real leverage in these negotiations. But it's characteristic of the way this team has long operated for him to be unrelentingly stubborn and unable to toss even crumbs of goodwill toward the community that has supported the O's through thick and a whole lot of thin.

The Orioles are still legit contenders, despite Tuesday's gut punch of a loss, but I have no idea what that actually means to a guy like John Angelos. While this team spent years in pure, unified misery as they lost and lost and lost, and nobody had a good time, it now feels as though there are two Baltimore Orioles splitting off onto opposite tracks. There's the Orioles that are by the players and for the fans. And then there's the Orioles that are by John Angelos, for John Angelos, existing solely as a brand from which to extract greater wealth. For now, they can live a tempestuous coexistence. But Angelos's vision of the Orioles will always have the power to kill the other.

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