- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 19, 2003

Bill Collins held up a battered baseball for his audience to see. “This is from 1924, when the Senators won their only World Series,” he said. “Next spring, on the 80th anniversary of that season, I look forward to having it thrown out as one of the ceremonial Opening Day pitches here.”

It was a lovely dream — and maybe a lovely pipe dream. Outside the Sky Dome room at the Doubletree Hotel in Crystal City, where Virginia Baseball Club chairman Collins was holding forth, the skies were appropriately murky. The future of baseball in the Washington area remains the same.

Tomorrow Major League Baseball’s relocation committee comes calling to check on efforts in Northern Virginia and the District to land the Montreal Expos. At the Doubletree yesterday, the Virginians were spinning better than anybody since Slick Willie.

“I’m cautiously optimistic and extremely hopeful,” said Collins.

“I’m a little beyond that — very optimistic,” said executive director Gabe Paul Jr.

“I’m more optimistic than I’ve ever been,” said Frank Pettrone, a Collins partner.

You would have thought a plane carrying the Expos had just landed at Reagan National. The fact is, everybody connected with Virginia Baseball is downright ignorant. Not ignorant as in dumb. Ignorant as in, we don’t have a clue.

Nobody knows what Bud Selig and his lapdog owners will do with the Expos, perhaps not even themselves, although the original July15 deadline for a decision is coming up on us like a Randy Johnson fastball.

Virginia has site problems, with no single location in place and substantial opposition from citizens’ groups and landowners. The District has financing problems, unless Mayor Anthony A. Williams can pull that $339million, rather than a rabbit, out of a hat. And Portland, Ore., the only other stated candidate, doesn’t have anything to recommend it except a potential record for rainouts.

So what will Major League Baseball do? I don’t know either, but it might be a pretty good bet that the Expos will operate next season out of Montreal, San Juan and, say, Duluth, Minn.

(I spent a month in Duluth once, and it only took me 24 hours.)

So maybe Collins ought to put that 1924 World Series ball back in the closet — or return it to its rightful owner, sportscaster Phil Wood. We all know that it takes baseball people twice as long as it should to get anything done and, heck, we’ve only been without a team for 32 seasons.

Comparing the District and Northern Virginia efforts probably is pointless. Arlington seems more logical to me because it’s that much farther away from Baltimore and the Orioles, but the trend since Camden Yards opened in 1992 has been to build ballparks in urban settings. So the two factors might cancel each other out.

Frankly, I don’t care where a park and team are, just so they’re somewhere. And I don’t mean in Portland, Ore.

As far as Collins and his Virginia associates are concerned, they should be applauded for perseverance. They’ve been in the hunt since 1993, enduring disappointments when (1) MLB selected Tampa Bay and Arizona as expansion sites, (2) original plans to add two more clubs were bushwhacked by the 1994 players strike and (3) the Houston Astros stayed put after local voters approved construction of what is now Minute Maid Park, thereby squeezing out Collins’ bid.

“I questioned whether it was all worth it after that referendum passed by three-tenths of 1 percentage point in 1996,” Collins said. “We met with our owners and asked if anybody wanted out. Everybody said he wanted to stay, and I never asked either question again.”

Presumably, Collins had faith then that another chance would come along. Now it has — or has it? Is this baseball’s version of a two-minute drill for Northern Virginia? Eventually, everybody runs out of chances.

Collins spins just a little on the worst-case scenario: “If it doesn’t happen this time, it would have a major effect on us.”

Now all Virginia Baseball, Fred Malek’s D.C. group and real fans in these parts can do is cross their fingers and whisper a silent prayer that may not be answered. As Tug McGraw put it so eloquently, ya gotta believe. But how long, O Lord, how long?

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