- The Washington Times - Monday, June 30, 2003

District Mayor Anthony Williams, D.C. Councilman Jack Evans and Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, perhaps three of the area’s most embattled politicians, all received major boosts in their approval ratings last week.

After decades of the Washington area subjugating itself to baseball and its many whims and demands, both the District and Virginia at last showed some spine. The trio said there would be no further significant movements on a stadium site or financing without a firm commitment of a team from Major League Baseball.

“There is no purpose moving this ahead, raising taxes and so forth, and then have baseball say, ‘Never mind.’” Evans said.

The torrent of local anger, while certainly not obscuring the depth of the region’s hunger for baseball, has been nothing short of cathartic.

More than 2,700 miles west of Washington, however, the folks in Portland, Ore., reacted to it with emotions ranged from bemusement to unabashed glee. Looking for an advantage against the larger and richer Washington area, Portland baseball backers think they found it with the District’s newly stated demand for a conditional award of the MLB-owned Montreal Expos.

Oregon’s contribution toward a $350million stadium, due for a critical vote by the state senate sometime in July, includes key provisions that would not release the money without a team in hand. But that legislative safety net still does not match the vitriol seen hereabouts.

“Oregon, the backward state with [supposedly] no chance, has better brains and better process than the folks out east at this stage,” said Maury Brown, spokesman for the Oregon Stadium Campaign [OSC], on an Internet site devoted to Portland’s MLB bid. “Let’s remember that only when things went bad in terms of the [financing] numbers did Evans go, ‘That’s it.’ Don’t place the blame squarely on MLB’s shoulders. If [Washington] and Mayor Williams had their act together on the funding proposal they wouldn’t be in this position.”

David Kahn, OSC executive director and point man on the city’s baseball bid, takes a more diplomatic stance.

“I’ve never looked at this as a competition,” Kahn said. “It doesn’t really matter what they say. We need to push forward and complete our stadium financing. In that regard, we are really competing against ourselves.”

Kahn may actually believe this, and by all available accounts he has presented Portland’s case in such a way to MLB executives. Others in Portland, however, have missed few, if any, opportunities to position the city as the answer to the Peter Angelos issue that so long has clouded the prospect of Washington baseball.

Portland and Seattle, MLB’s nearest market to Portland, are 170 miles apart. If the Expos move to Portland, it’s logical to think baseball can avoid the market cannibalization issues Angelos and some other owners fear so much.

And it’s important not to forget that only one of the three candidates for the Expos is going to get the team, barring some bizarre scenario that turns Puerto Rico into a long-term answer for baseball. And that means not only putting a best position forward, but also looking better than the others. That’s why the OSC’s Web site features plenty of market data comparing itself to Washington — favorably of course — and why the Expos relocation race has been about little more than civic chest beating.

“We have said from the very beginning there is no better place to put a team than Washington, D.C.,” said Bobby Goldwater, executive director of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission. “When this city truly gets behind something, big things get done.”

All of this begs the question: Is Portland a realistic answer for baseball?

Provincially speaking, the answer is a decided no. The Washington region’s population and TV market are more than twice as large as Portland’s. Combining Washington and Baltimore creates a mega-market nearly equal in size to Chicago but with far more spending power. Despite the District’s well-documented, crime-related image problems, it is Portland that is grappling with heavily reduced spending for public safety and soaring reports of car theft, shoplifting and burglaries.

Angelos’ vocal opposition to a Washington area team raises another interesting point. Kahn’s OSC estimates 10 percent of the Seattle Mariners’ season ticket base comes from Oregon. That’s roughly the same percentage as the Washington area’s support of the Orioles, according to studies conducted by District department of planning and economic development, as well as the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority.

Of course the area’s hole card is RFK Stadium. It may be outdated, but RFK still is major league size and ready to house a team on short notice.

“The idea of baseball going to Portland is laughable,” said D.C. Council member David Catania.

Portland’s bid does include compelling features. Despite the safety provision in the financing bill, Portland remains one of the fastest growing cities in the country with demographics and per capita income far above many existing MLB markets. Other markets similar to Portland in size, such as Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Baltimore, Charlotte and San Diego, all have at least two teams among the four major sports leagues, making Oregon’s largest city easily one of the areas least represented by major pro sports.

“We remain cautiously optimistic about our bid,” Kahn said.

Getting back to the civic chest beating, the difference between Portland and Washington ultimately may lie in which individuals among local leadership have openly supported their city’s baseball bid. Here in Washington, the question is more about who hasn’t come out in favor of baseball. Proponents include insider political and financial types like prospective team owner Fred Malek, high-profile businessmen and developers, the tech community, suburbanites, in-towners, and even ex-Redskins. The consensus for baseball is clear.

The fundamental questions of where to put the stadium and how to pay for it remain unanswered and, in several pockets, have created open conflict. But those questions, coupled with the political demands of a clear plan from MLB, are being asked with the belief that baseball still belongs here.

Where, by comparison, are Portland’s biggest and brightest? In part by pre-determined strategy, no prospective ownership group has surfaced yet with a desire to buy a Portland-based team. It is quite telling that key Oregon luminaries such as Paul Allen, owner of the Portland Trail Blazers, and Nike chairman Phil Knight, head of the largest corporation in the state, have distanced themselves from the baseball effort.

“I actually don’t think [I’d be interested in owning the team],” Knight told KFXX Radio earlier this month. “Nike’s hard enough to run by itself. I think [MLB] has some serious problems that they have to address and work out. They made it a little better with the last [labor deal], but I think it’s still a sticky situation when the two [New York] teams make money and everybody else loses it.”

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