- - Tuesday, July 16, 2019

BALTIMORE | He arrived undercover, his hiring quietly covered in a Baltimore Orioles press release that was issued on the day before July 4th of 2018.

“The Orioles announced today that John Vidalin joins the organization as Chief Operating Officer for Business Operations. Vidalin will oversee day-to-day operations of the Orioles’ business departments, including revenue (ticket sales and corporate partnerships), branding, customer experience, ballpark operations, and event development.”

He was the specialist brought in to save a dying franchise, an experimental drug the Angelos family hoped would breathe life into what had become a baseball corpse. The Orioles were bringing in an outsider to run the business operation, giving him the title that owner Peter Angelos had rarely bestowed on anyone outside the family — chief operating officer. 

They paid a search firm more than $100,000 to hire someone for that job and came up with Vidalin, a former executive vice president and chief revenue officer with the Miami Heat.

The press release, essentially a news dump, given the timing on the eve of a holiday, had this statement from the owner’s son, Executive Vice President John Angelos: “John’s senior executive experience working for some of the most iconic sports team brands and most-respected organizations across the world’s top sports leagues make him the ideal choice to oversee our talented business division in further developing our Orioles and Oriole Park brands in the years to come.”

Vidalin started in August. He left in April. And in between, Vidalin was, for the most part, a ghost.

QUIZ: Can you match the nickname to the Major League Baseball player?

He was also the Orioles’ best hope for breathing some life into Camden Yards.

The stadium is a funeral home now, and fans come for a viewing as much as a baseball game.

They’ve lost more than two million fans since their high of 3.7 million in 1997. Even when attendance picked back up, peaking at 2.4 million during the team’s five-year revival from 2012 to 2016, it was evident that many fans from the ’90s weren’t coming back.

Going into Tuesday night’s home game against the Washington Nationals, the last-place Orioles (28-65) are averaging 17,000 fans a game this season. They’ve had games that drew as little as 6,500. And remember, this is after the Orioles started allowing adults who purchase upper deck tickets to bring two kids nine and under to the game for free. 

You can take your kids to an Orioles game for free. Still, few can be bothered to attend.

The only thing that will save the Orioles — and perhaps the city of Baltimore as well — is an owner transplant.

The Orioles are trying to sell a bill of goods to dispirited fans about a baseball revival underway with new general manager Mike Elias, fresh off the turnaround team that rebuilt the Houston Astros. 

But the damage in Baltimore runs deep.

The Angelos regime has buried this once-proud franchise too completely for fans to believe the Orioles can rise again with them in charge. The dysfunction is part of the franchise DNA.

Vidalin, who did not return repeated phone calls, came to that conclusion quickly. 

As the Orioles have fallen, so has the city of Baltimore, under siege by crime, political scandal and businesses closing up shop.

What the city could use is an Orioles team that fans could care about today, tomorrow, and the next day. Cities that have fallen on tough times in the past have rallied around the successes of their teams, with hope riding on every outcome over the course of a 162-game season. 

That is not the 2019 Orioles, and it won’t be the 2020 Orioles or the 2021 Orioles, without a new owner.

The losses the Orioles have suffered at the box office and the television booth have to be devastating. The regional sports network owned by the Angelos family — the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network — has been under attack in a legal battle with baseball and their partners, the Washington Nationals, over revenue.

And despite the Orioles preference for paying lawyers rather than opponents, sooner or later, they are going to have a write a big check to the Nationals — likely more than $100 million.

Both Major League Baseball and the Players Association have expressed concern about the future of the franchise.

With the elder Angelos reportedly ill, baseball owners have asked the organization which son is in charge, John or Lou Angelos. And Players Union chief Tony Clark told reporters in March that the franchise rebuild is being closely monitored by the association.

But the only way out for everyone involved may be the sale of the team and MASN.

Make no mistake, as long as Peter Angelos is alive, no such deals will likely be made. But sources said that John Angelos has explored the possibility of perhaps entering into an arrangement like the one that former Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell had with Steve Bisciotti.

Modell agreed to take Bisciotti on as an investor for 49 percent of the football franchise, with the provision that he acquired full ownership with additional monies several years later.

In the press release announcing his hiring, Vidalin said he was “eager” to “further grow the Camden Yards and Orioles brands across the region.”

He’s now growing the Miami Heat brand, going back home to his old employer in May as chief commercial officer.

Meanwhile, in Baltimore, the Orioles hoped to draw some fans to the ballpark Tuesday night with Brooks Robinson bobblehead night. But fans also faced a downtown water main break that affected some of the routes to Camden Yards.

This franchise is drowning, and no amount of bobbleheads will work as a life preserver.

Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday and Sunday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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