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Smouse in it for the love of the Birds and the law

Orioles general counsel H. Russell Smouse remembers when he became a fan.

H. Russell Smouse

He was listening to the first-ever Baltimore Orioles game on the radio in 1954 in his dorm room at Princeton University. Smouse was a junior in college and the team was playing the Chicago White Sox.

Smouse spent that summer in Ocean City soaking up the sun and his new favorite team.

“When we weren’t in the ocean, we were listening to the Orioles,” Smouse said.

In his 18 years with the Orioles, Smouse, 79, has helped interview general managers, negotiated player salaries and attended countless baseball games. He knows Cal Ripken Jr. and met Fidel Castro when the Orioles played in Cuba in 1999.

“It’s interesting working with people in baseball,” Smouse said. “It’s a good group of people. I find the arbitration process interesting. It calls for a good knowledge of baseball, but it’s a legal process.”

Smouse joined The Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos in Baltimore in 1993. Angelos, majority owner of the Orioles, asked Smouse to be the team’s general counsel the following year.

When he first started, Smouse said, he dealt mostly with agents negotiating player contracts. In 1996, he also took over as lead presenter in the team’s arbitration cases, where hearings are held on salary disputes.

Many of the salary negotiations are settled before they reach the arbitration hearing stage. Of the 10 cases that have gone to a hearing since Smouse became general counsel, the team has won nine. Smouse was the lead presenter on seven of those cases, all of which he won.

“I do have an appreciation of the game from years of being invested in it,” Smouse said. “When I am looking at players I know the important things to look for.”

One of his most memorable negotiations was with pitcher Mike Mussina in 1995. Smouse said it was one of the few times a player was directly involved in the talks, instead of just an agent.

“He’s thoughtful and well-spoken,” Smouse said. “He’s just an impressive person. I thought that he was a very forthright and very intelligent guy. He was very pleasant to talk to — no bluster or bravado. It was easy to be involved in the discussion.”

From early December through January, Smouse puts on his (figurative) Orioles cap and concentrates on building and researching arbitration cases. Smouse said these cases are built on finding comparable players with the same position and talent and proposing a salary based on what these players get paid.

“A lot of intense preparation goes into it with the data we use and comparing lots of players,” Smouse said.

Most cases that go to an arbitration hearing involve pitchers, he said. If the player and team cannot agree on a salary, each side proposes a figure during a four-hour hearing before a panel, which adopts one of the proposals within 24 hours, Smouse said. Those cases are heard in February in either Florida or Arizona every year.

“We try to file a number you think will establish a midpoint between the two numbers and can prevail,” Smouse said.

This year, Smouse was in Florida for an arbitration case involving pitcher Brad Bergesen’s salary. Bergesen wanted $1.2 million and the team wanted to pay him $800,000. The team and Smouse won.

Smouse is also one of a group of people who sits in on interviews when a general manager is hired. He was there when Dan Duquette was interviewed and chosen as the team’s GM last year.

“Having knowledge of the history of the team over recent years and my investment in the arbitration process has given me an experience that hopefully makes a contribution,” Smouse said.

After February, Smouse deals with Orioles work on-and-off throughout the year, stepping in if, for example, a lawsuit is brought against the team. But for most of the year he is working on other matters at Angelos’ firm, splitting his time between offices downtown and in Towson on behalf of injured people and their families.

“My real interest in life has been representing people who need representation,” Smouse said. “That is what we are all about.”

Unlike that day almost 60 years ago when the Orioles played their first opening game in Baltimore, Smouse will be at Camden Yards Friday for this year’s season opener.

“If I’m not there during the season, I am watching on TV,” Smouse said. “I am always paying attention to the team.”