- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2004

In the chaotic aftermath of the brawl between Pedro Martinez and Don Zimmer at the American League Championship Series, I walked up to a frenzied Major League Baseball official and said, “I just have one question: How does all this affect baseball in Washington?”

He had a good laugh because MLB officials expect that, no matter what else is going on, there always will be a question about baseball in Washington from those who have been writing about this ghost of a team for so many years.

It was a joke, meant to lighten the moment. It doesn’t seem funny now.

If you want conspiracy theory — and, God knows, that is all there is when it comes to the return of baseball to Washington — here’s a doozy: The trade of Alex Rodriguez to the Yankees will hurt the fleeting chance that remains to bring a team here.

Follow the bouncing ball:

The animosity between the Yankees and Red Sox — already the most heated rivalry in sports — rose to new heights last year. It started with spring training battles for free agents like Jose Contreras and deteriorated to name calling: Red Sox president Larry Lucchino called the Yankees the “Evil Empire,” and Yankees boss George Steinbrenner called Lucchino a “chameleon.”

In the postseason, it turned into a Game3 motorcycle gang rumble: Martinez hit Karim Garcia, Manny Ramirez charged Roger Clemens, benches emptied, Zimmer swung at Martinez, Martinez threw Zimmer to the ground, and Jeff Nelson and Garcia got into a fistfight with a Fenway worker in the bullpen.

Yankees president Randy Levine criticized the Red Sox, who shot back in a news conference that included owners Lucchino, John Henry and Tom Werner. It grew so heated Cadillac Bud Selig issued a gag order — just as he had during spring training in the verbal tussle between the organizations.

The hard-fought series — ending with Aaron Boone’s 11th-inning home run in Game7 — only deepened the intense hatred.

So, Lucchino and Company set out this winter to crush the Evil Empire by acquiring Curt Schilling in a trade with Arizona and trying to bring A-Rod to Boston. But the deal with Texas was never finalized because the Red Sox didn’t want to put up the money asked for by Rangers owner Tom Hicks to help pay A-Rod’s prohibitive salary.

When the talks with Boston collapsed — and when Boone went down with a season-ending knee injury — the Yankees swooped in and made the deal to bring A-Rod to New York to play third base, of all things.

This was as deep a wound as the Red Sox could suffer — not only losing A-Rod but losing him to the Yankees. It is certain part of the appeal of the deal for New York was beating Boston again. “I think Larry Lucchino is a little disappointed,” Levine said. “He had an opportunity.”

Ouch.

But the A-Rod deal has greater implications than the rivalry. The Red Sox aren’t the only franchise that hates the Yankees. There are 27 other owners who aren’t particularly fond of them, and the A-Rod trade could galvanize a growing stop-the-Yankees movement.

How does this affect baseball in Washington?

A few days before the A-Rod deal was announced, George Zoffinger, chief executive of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, met with Major League Baseball President Bob DuPuy and other baseball officials about bringing a team to the Meadowlands Sports Complex.

They said the meeting was not about relocating the Montreal Expos there, but rather just to study future options. No ballpark would be built until a proposed $1billion Xanadu retail and entertainment center is built.

But things change.

That New Jersey is even considering a team is a change. Baseball has been begging New Jersey to accept a team, but state officials have declined. Now, it seems, they are willing.

No one in baseball ever has begged Washington or Northern Virginia to seek a team because of the Baltimore Orioles and concern about how a team in Washington would affect that franchise.

The irony here is one of the driving forces behind the push to put a team in northern New Jersey is the hope it would affect an existing franchise.

The luxury tax hasn’t stopped Boss George, so his fellow owners view the placement of a team in northern New Jersey as a way to dent the Yankees’ financial power. This idea has been pushed privately by several owners, and the A-Rod deal will only give the notion momentum.

Boss George is powerful only within the confines of what he can do with the Yankees. Among his ownership brethren, he holds no particular influence. These days, in fact, Peter Angelos actually may have more juice, given his recent appointment to Cadillac Bud’s executive council. (And, by the way, Angelos pretty much called the Washington baseball effort dead in Sunday’s Baltimore Sun, saying the concern about a team coming to the area “is not as intense as it was.”)

That Washington must compete for a team with cities like Monterrey, Portland, Las Vegas and Norfolk (which now appears to be the hot city in relocation buzz) only serves to illustrate how much baseball does not want to be forced to come here. None of these locations can compete with the Washington area in terms of population, television market and money.

Northern New Jersey, though, can compete — if not for the Expos now, then down the line.

If baseball puts a team in northern New Jersey, it will be to stop the spending of the Yankees, who are spending to beat the Red Sox, who are obsessed with stopping the Yankees.

That is how all of this affects baseball in Washington. It is as sound a reality as anything else in the maddening quest to bring the game back here.

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