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The Peter Principle

By Tom Scocca | Posted 10/13/1999

Then the king said, "The one says, "This is my son that is alive, and your son is dead'; while the other says, "Not so! Your son is dead, and my son is the living one.'" So the king said, "Bring me a sword," and they brought a sword before the king. The king said, "Divide the living boy in two; then give half to the one, and half to the other."—1 Kings 3:23-25

Here we have the difference between the jurisprudence of King Solomon and that of Peter Angelos: The ruler of ancient Israel was bluffing, to see which woman would give up custody to save her son's life. The ruler of Birdland would have gone ahead and chopped the kid in half.

That's how he handled the battle for custody of the Orioles. First-year general manager Frank Wren wanted to run the team his way, without manager Ray Miller messing things up. Miller wanted to run the team his way, without Wren meddling. So Angelos, in his wisdom, fired them both, leaving the team to be run by nobody at all.

Both men, unquestionably, screwed up this season. But the preponderance of the evidence says that Miller should go and Wren should stay. The GM's mistakes, at least, were confined to the early part of the year, when he made some bad free-agent signings to patch holes on the roster. As the summer wore on, while Miller fumed impotently about the Orioles' failures, Wren started methodically cutting his losses, making sharp trades to stockpile young pitchers. By September, as the team took its first toddling steps toward respectability, one could almost imagine that the organization had a plan for the future.

Yet Angelos, who made his fortune as a civil trial lawyer by appealing to the preponderance of evidence, refused to see things that way. Instead, King Peter called for his sword, and set everything back to square one—or, more precisely, square minus-one: no plan, nobody to make the plan, not even a plan to hire somebody to make the plan. Off with their heads, and to hell with the details.

The club's statement announcing Wren's firing was notably free of any discussion of his work in hiring and developing players—that is, his actual job performance. Instead, management offered a bill of complaints, attributed to team vice chairman Joe Foss, about Wren's attitude and his relationship with the rest of the front office. The general manager was "unreasonable," "authoritarian," took criticism "defiantly." Worst of all, Wren had decided on one occasion that the team's charter flight should take off on time—leaving without Cal Ripken, who, Foss sniffed, "has done so much for the Orioles and for baseball."

That the whole document is asinine and irrelevant has already been quite thoroughly established by the writers for the dailies. To their work, I can add only one question: And who is Joe Foss, anyway?

In 1983, when Cal Ripken Jr. was winning his first Most Valuable Player award, Foss, Defender of the Oriole Way, was working his way up to senior vice president at Minnesota's Norwest Corp. In 1991, when Ripken was winning his second MVP and a Gold Glove, Foss was CEO of First American Bank in Washington, D.C. Foss has about as much standing to fire the Orioles' general manager as Earl Weaver has to set the prime interest rate.

Yet Foss is part of the collection of executives Angelos trusts to guide the Orioles, his shadow government of white-collar hacks and washed-up Baseball Professionals: Syd Thrift, Tom Trebelhorn, sonny-boy John Angelos. Rarely are any of these people given credit for specific decisions. But together, they form a sort of institutional center of gravity, whose pull a manager or general manager can ignore only at his peril.

Wren's efforts to take control of the club were doomed from the beginning. He was trying to make decisions about personnel and player development in an organization in which Thrift was already installed as director of player personnel and Trebelhorn as director of player development. While Wren was guiding the team through the end of the summer, Thrift was traveling in Greece with Angelos, apparently second-guessing the general manager all the while.

The whole setup made no sense. But it is not the Angelos Way to let his employees take care of their own business. In other franchises, the general manager hires the manager and the manager hires the coaches. Not so for the Orioles. When Davey Johnson was manager, the brass made him take Miller for his pitching coach. Miller, when he became manager, was forced to take Bruce Kison as pitching coach.

Truth is, it doesn't matter who ends up being the next manager or general manager of the Orioles. Pretty much everyone else who was a part of this 78-84 season, from the dugout to the warehouse offices, will be back. This is the message behind every Angelos dismissal: It's the person, not the system. Announcer Jon Miller didn't bleed black and orange. Assistant GM Kevin Malone didn't want to work for the team. Davey Johnson was an unethical maverick.

This is why the current administration talks so much about the Oriole Way. The old phrase has become a code word for Angelos' top-to-bottom control of things: Everybody pulls together, in the service of the owner. There is a historical precedent for this leadership style of authoritarian collectivism, with its hidden power struggles, propaganda wars, and periodic purges of ranking underlings. Former O's third baseman Leo Gomez—ah, Leo Gomez!—hit it right on the head when he referred to the owner, fondly, as his Uncle Peter. It's the leadership style of Uncle Joe Stalin.

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