Wednesday, May 9, 2001

This question has been asked before, but … Should we get excited about the possibility of major league baseball returning to Our Town?

Well, maybe a little. But that’s all for now.

Two developments last week provided some hope that our 30-year separation from the so-called national pastime might end soon. (And in this case, “soon” means sometime between now and, say, 2005.)

First, the Florida Marlins’ bid for a publicly financed ballpark died in the state senate without coming up for a hearing, prompting club owner John Henry to moan, “This was our last hope.” Although Gov. Jeb Bush announced support yesterday for a tax referendum in July, the Marlins figure to stay at sterile Pro Player Stadium, miles and miles away from their strongest fan base.

Second, baseball fans in Montreal, assuming any are left, continued to treat the Expos like bearers of the plague. A three-game series against the Arizona Diamondbacks drew 13,480 presumably lost souls to Olympic Stadium hardly enough to pay the vendors and ushers.

There is some reason, therefore, to think or at least pray that Henry will look north or Expos owner Jeffrey Loria south and notice the capital of the free world sitting here without a team.

Where else is there, if somebody wants to move? Portland?

Las Vegas?


Gimme a break.

In these parts, we’ve got two groups with plenty of money and prestige vying for a franchise, Bill Collins’ Virginia Baseball Inc. and Fred Malek’s D.C. gang. True, there are no concrete plans (pun intended) to build a stadium, but RFK is available as a home for a season or two. Heck, they’ve even cleaned the place up beautifully for the two soccer tenants, D.C. United and the Washington Freedom.

The sad part is that we have been reduced to hovering over the dying remains of somebody else’s team. Baseball has no plans to expand; in fact, there has been talk of eliminating a few of the weaker franchises. As everybody this side of Bud Selig knows, the sport is pretty much in a mess, especially with another labor dispute on the horizon. But, hey, we’ll take anything we can get. After all these years, who could blame us?

I don’t know how it might come down, if and when Washington gets a team, but I have a hunch it will happen overnight sort of like when Giant Food executive Joseph Danzansky thought he had bought the San Diego Padres and announced proudly and loudly, “We have a team [for the 1974 season].” (Remember those ‘74 baseball cards that showed Padres players dressed in the team’s yellow and brown uniforms but with a phony looking “W” scrawled where the “SD” should have been on the caps? If you’ve got a couple, you can retire and move somewhere warm where they already have a team.)

As any fool knows, baseball hasn’t exactly been busting its chops to put a team here. Despite all the studies presented to owners, I doubt that they realize how much the area has grown and changed since 1971, when Bob Short spirited the expansion Senators to Texas. There’s Metro, for one thing, and the expansion of our bedroom communities from Frederick to Fredericksburg. Plus, people are returning to the inner city at night a welcome process that would be greatly accelerated by the presence of a ballclub downtown.

In my mind, there’s no doubt that a new team should be located in the city, rather than somewhere off an Interstate highway in Virginia and I say that as someone who lived in Northern Virginia for 18 years. I appreciate the years of hard work done by Collins, Gabe Paul Jr. and their associates, but our team should be the Washington Whatevers. Besides, the trend in baseball for the last decade has been to inner city ballparks. Wouldn’t a downtown area near Mount Vernon Square featuring a stadium, restaurants and other entertainment venues be wonderful for our beleaguered city?

Camden Yards, eat your heart out. You are a shining jewel but you’re still in Baltimore, where crabs go to die. So you think you can compete with D.C. in terms of world prestige and athletic facilities? Forget it. When President Bush or his successor throws out the first ball to start the baseball season, he’ll be doing it where it belongs in his adopted hometown.

Another helpful factor is that the Orioles are going to be mediocre for years thank you, Peter Angelos with a corresponding decline in attendance. For a decade, some baseball owners have feared that a team here would hurt their cash cow in Charm City. Now that’s a much less valid argument.

Angelos’ ruinous management of one of the game’s strongest franchises has turned off droves of fans in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. When Cal Ripken retires, almost certainly after this season, these folks will have very little reason to remain Bird watchers. Hey, folks, c’mon home.

Although I don’t mean to suggest that a team necessarily will be playing in Washington next season, or even the season after, our chances look a little brighter today than they did a week or two ago. Don’t hold your breath, but it wouldn’t hurt to cross your fingers and implore the baseball gods to do the right thing. For once anyway.

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