Peter Angelos: The Toughest Bird In Baltimore

For the Orioles' owner, it's all about clout

When Cuba's baseball team plays the Orioles in Baltimore on May 3, there will be one pugnacious plaintiff's lawyer basking in the warmth of the TV lights--and taking intense heat from critics of the Castro regime. But hey, Peter Angelos can handle it.

It wasn't Steinbrenner or Turner or Eisner or Murdoch or any of the other Major League Baseball owners who got the State Dept. to allow an American ball club to play in Havana and then host the Cuban team in the States for a rematch. It was a guy who came up the hard way in East Baltimore--toiling in the tavern of his immigrant Greek father, going to law school at night, working as a union lawyer. It was a guy who stood up to the asbestos industry and won. It was a guy who bought the Orioles and sells out Camden Yards. It was a guy who helped exact billions from Big Tobacco. It was a guy who can command the attention of a roomful of U.S. senators. It was a guy who snaps his fingers in Maryland and a dozen officials come running. It was a guy who drives a late-model Caddy and picks up his own dry cleaning. It was, of course, Angelos.

Why? Because he's got the juice. And that thirst for influence, more than any other reason, is what makes Peter run.

The minivan zips along Havana's main drag, the Malecon. To the right, a sumptuous view of the sea churning against an ancient wall; to the left, block after block of ramshackle houses that look as though they haven't seen a paintbrush since the Eisenhower years. From inside the van, Peter G. Angelos surveys the eerie scene, clearly stirred by beauty and poverty living side by side.

He has just come from watching his Baltimore Orioles become the first MLB team to play here in 40 years. But after four hours at the elbow of Fidel Castro, foreign policy, not exhibition baseball, is on his mind. "You just saw 55,000 Cubans stand at attention while the American national anthem was played and while the American flag fluttered in the Cuban breeze," he says. "We've made our peace and established relations with countries like Vietnam where we lost 55,000 soldiers and spent billions.... If Vietnam was acceptable, why isn't a resolution of our differences with this country? We didn't lose any soldiers in Cuba that I can recall."

Not a lot of nuance there. But what you see is what you get with Angelos. "Peter Angelos is a completely unique individual," says Casper R. Taylor Jr., speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates. "He has intense goals, intense drive, and an intense ego."

UNDER CONSTRUCTION. In Havana, all three were on display. The high-profile visit made an international celebrity of Angelos--if only for a moment. Did Angelos have any problem standing beside the last icon of international communism? No, replies the five-foot, six-inch Angelos, "except I was kind of unhappy he was so much taller than me. That was my first thought." Luckily, they did plenty of sitting during the Mar. 28 game, a 3-2 extra-inning victory for the Orioles.

If Cuba was a power surge for Angelos, it also was a chance to delight children, as he loves to do. On his tab, 15 inner-city school kids from Baltimore accompanied the Orioles to Havana, where they sampled Cuban culture and generally had the time of their lives. For the rematch between the Orioles and Cuban All Stars at Camden Yards, Angelos' guest list is even longer: 8,000 free tickets will be distributed to the local kids.

That's the good Peter. The other Peter is a great deal more intimidating. Take the guy who had the misfortune of owning the Burger King in Angelos' downtown office tower. Angelos decided one day that the building was too upscale for a fast-food joint. Not long after, one entrance was locked and a second became part of a construction site--unavoidable, you know--and away went the customers. The Burger King franchisee declined to be interviewed for this article. So did others. Four fellow baseball owners, several former Orioles employees, and novelist Tom Clancy, one of Angelos' co-investors in the team, did not respond or turned down requests to talk about him. Even Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who accompanied the Orioles to Cuba and whom Angelos describes as a "good friend," was silent.

Yet it is Angelos' reputation for toughness that seems to get things done. Baseball officials had been trying to send a major-league team to Cuba for 25 years only to get lost in a diplomatic maze. When Angelos became involved, the pieces dropped into place. Angelos says he never personally lobbied President Clinton or Vice-President Gore for permission to take the Orioles to Havana. But it probably did not hurt matters that he was one of the Democratic Party's biggest givers in the last campaign cycle, passing out $331,000 in soft-money contributions--$2,000 more than AT&T. In March, 15 U.S. Senators, including Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and Democratic Senate Campaign Committee Chairman Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.), said thanks at a private dinner for Angelos in Washington.

THICK SKIN. Friends in high places have no doubt been useful to Angelos, but he's hardly the sort to let someone else do his fighting. Cuban-American groups have denounced the Mar. 28 game in Havana and the rematch. Picketers marched on the Orioles' spring training stadium in Fort Lauderdale, and Representative Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) plans to lead a similar protest in Baltimore. "I don't think Cuban Americans have a high respect for [Angelos]," says Menendez. "He's a man who represents everything successful in the United States, yet he sits next to someone [Castro] who represses his people."

The barbs roll off Angelos. "Whenever you do something unconventional, there will be protests and honest disagreement," he says. "If you're convinced it's the right thing to do, move forward."

Angelos not only talks like a four-star general, he walks like one--shoulders back, chest out. In his world, the name of the game is influence, not affluence. Despite amassing a personal fortune of $400 million, mostly through product-liability cases against asbestos manufacturers and Big Tobacco, money often seems beside the point. He and his wife, Georgia, live in an unpretentious home in North Baltimore they bought 31 years ago--before the big bucks began rolling in. There they raised their sons, John and Louis (both work for their dad). Recently, Angelos thought about buying a jet, but decided not to. "I kept asking myself, `Why do I need a jet?"' he recalls, chuckling at himself.

GOING BALLISTIC. In Baltimore, where he has lived 59 of his 69 years, Angelos is a presence both revered and feared. In addition to the baseball team that he bought in 1993 for $173 million, then the highest price ever paid for a MLB franchise, he owns a restaurant, a 237-acre horse farm, a suburban shopping center, and key properties in the downtown business district, including a 22-story tower. His law firm occupies the top floor.

Angelos sits on the boards of local universities and the symphony. And he gives away lots of nonpolitical money, including a $1 million gift to the University of Baltimore Law School, his alma mater. Sometimes his donations are spontaneous. Last year, Thomas J. D'Alesandro III, a former Baltimore mayor, was heading a drive for a local college that needed to raise $100,000. He went to see Angelos seeking a donation. As the meeting ended, Angelos handed him a check for the full amount.

Angelos also wants what he wants when he wants it. After buying his downtown building three years ago, he learned a local utility planned to erect a huge water tower atop a vacant building next door--a project that had the city's approval. "He went ballistic," recalls Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "He came up with some obscure provision of a city code which arguably might have been violated." The project was scrapped. "It was a pretty bad idea. I was glad they saw the legitimacy of my complaints," says Angelos, with no trace of humor.

In the state capital of Annapolis, Angelos also leaves big footprints. Some measures before the General Assembly are referred to simply as "Angelos bills." Not all succeed: Legislation this year to lift the $350,000 cap on noneconomic damages that asbestos victims can recover failed without reaching a vote in the Senate. Angelos represents 120 clients who stood to collect higher awards if the bill had passed. It was a rare setback, and, Angelos promises, a temporary one. "Let me assure you: I'm going to restore the litigation rights of Marylanders," he intones.

Three years ago, as asbestos cases overwhelmed Baltimore courts, Angelos pushed through a bill authorizing the appointment of more judges to hear the cases. Opponents complained that it was a reckless precedent, but Angelos pulled out all the stops, including arranging a visit to the State House by his most celebrated employee, Orioles Iron Man Cal Ripken.

"COULDN'T LOSE." In 1998, Angelos scored a still bigger victory--passage of a bill permitting the use of statistical evidence in the state's lawsuit against tobacco companies. Had the bill not passed, Angelos would have had to have proved that the illnesses of hundreds of thousands of patients were tobacco-related--one at a time. "Because of his political clout, he was able to change the law so he couldn't lose," says Robert A. Levy, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute who closely followed Maryland's settlement. Within months, Angelos had helped nail down a $4.2 billion-plus settlement for Maryland--and a huge fee for his 90-lawyer firm, in which he has no partners.

Political allies say Angelos wins because he's tireless--a workday often stretches 18 hours--and on the right side of most issues. Opponents complain that Angelos' power often goes unchecked. They howled in March when it appeared that a state senator who is also a lawyer in Angelos' firm might cast the deciding vote on the controversial asbestos bill. And they say that legislators who are receptive to Angelos' bills are plied with invitations to parties and entertained in luxury suites at Camden Yards.

But schmoozing has gotten Angelos everywhere. He got to know working people and their problems while tending bar at his father's tavern. Soon after law school he was representing the United Steelworkers locals and the Baltimore Building Trades Council. In the late 1970s, the first workers at Baltimore's Bethlehem Steel plant were diagnosed with asbestos-related illnesses. Union leaders turned to Angelos. "We all felt somebody had to head this thing off, and that Pete was the one," says Don Irvine, a former president of the local Steelworkers union. "When we needed him he was always there."

Angelos acknowledges that he gambled his net worth on the cases, which grew to include 8,500 workers. It took most of a decade, but he demolished the opposition. The first offer to settle was $200 million. The eventual settlement approached $1 billion. "Some people felt the lawyers got more than they deserved," says Irvine. "But the way most of us saw it, if it hadn't been for Pete, we wouldn't have gotten a thing."

In the tobacco litigation, Angelos, a former pack-a-day smoker, is due for another mammoth payday. How big remains to be determined. Angelos' contract with the state sets his contingency fee at one fourth the recovery--more than $1 billion. But last year, the General Assembly ordered that cut to 12.5%. Critics say even $500 million is too much. Whatever fee he finally gets, though, Angelos clearly has found his niche. These days, eight Angelos lawyers are preparing lawsuits alleging that manufacturers of lead paint knowingly contaminated hundreds of thousands of American houses.

AWFUL START. The battle for his tobacco paycheck may take Angelos' mind off what looks like an interminable 1999 for the Orioles. A month into the regular season, Angelos' $83 million, underachieving team has the worst record in baseball. On radio sports shows, callers bemoan his take-charge style. Since 1994, five general managers or assistant GMs have left the team, and no Orioles manager has kept his job longer than two seasons.

For Angelos, the recriminations sting. He was a darling of the fans in his early years as owner, winning their affection for refusing to hire replacement players during baseball's collective-bargaining debacle in 1994. "Sure, I take it personally. I'm literally spending my own money. Not the Orioles' money. My money," he says, eyes blazing. "I've invested millions of dollars in the club. I don't need any praise for that. I need people to start telling the truth. The way I'm operating this team clearly indicates I want a winner."

However, it won't be this year. It's probably already too late for the Orioles to salvage the season. But then, 1999 hasn't been a total loss for their impatient owner: After all, he'll always have Havana.

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