- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 9, 2004

Nine years ago yesterday, Bill Collins received a phone call from Boston Red Sox CEO John Harrington telling him Northern Virginia would not be one of the two locations recommended by Major League Baseball’s expansion committee.

Collins, who was in his room at the Breakers Hotel in West Palm Beach, Fla., at the time, was calm as he got the news from Harrington. Then he put the phone down and kicked a trash can clear across the room. He knew Phoenix would get one franchise but couldn’t possibly see how good businessmen could award the Tampa Bay area — with its antiquated domed stadium and a market nearly half as affluent as Northern Virginia — a baseball team instead of Virginia.

“We just never thought baseball was going to pick Tampa,” Collins said yesterday after his group, Virginia Baseball, held what is likely to be its last media luncheon. “We knew Phoenix was a lock. They had everything done right, what we’re looking to do now. Tampa, with that domed stadium in St. Petersburg … we just never thought baseball would make that decision. We seemed to be prophetic in that.”

Good business, as it turned out, had nothing to do with it. Promises were made to avoid lawsuits, one stemming from Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who used the threat of relocating his team there as leverage to get his new Comiskey Park built in 1991. The other was made when baseball stepped in to stop the relocation of the San Francisco Giants there in 1992. Tampa Bay was awarded an expansion team in 1995 because back-room debts were owed.

So here was Collins again yesterday, speaking as confidently as he did nine years ago at the expansion meeting about the merits of Northern Virginia for baseball. “We have the best market available to major league baseball, bar none,” he said. “Is there a better opportunity for baseball in Monterrey [Mexico], Las Vegas or Norfolk, Virginia? I don’t think so.”

He is right, just as he was right to believe so nine years ago. But in the looking glass that is the world of baseball, up is often down, and right is often wrong. And if history repeats itself when the Montreal Expos are relocated, Collins will be booting another trash can sometime this year. All signs are pointing to a similar decision — maybe not for the same reasons but with the same results — in selecting a location for baseball.

Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos has been strutting his stuff lately. He has said publicly that the “threat” of a team coming to the Washington metropolitan area has subsided. He has been emboldened by his election to baseball’s Executive Council in January — Cadillac Bud Selig’s inner circle — and feels it is safe to go back in the water in Washington. His enlistment of a District public relations firm to build up his fan base here confirmed that.

Collins dismissed Angelos’ bravado. “We don’t believe it,” he said. “The idea that Northern Virginia is a suburb of Baltimore and part of the Baltimore market is absolutely absurd. … We are not part of the Baltimore market, have never been and never will be. Anyone who claims we are part of the Baltimore market I believe is delusional.”

Unfortunately, the ones who are delusional own baseball teams, and the dean of delusion is Cadillac Bud himself. He ultimately will steer the Expos to their new location — if they relocate as promised. As recently as Sunday, Cadillac Bud told MLB.com the presence of the Orioles in the Washington market “certainly is a concern of mine. I’ve always been concerned about how any situation affects existing franchises. But the relocation committee is hard at work looking at everything, and we shall see.”

Oh, yes, the relocation committee. The one that was supposed to have a recommendation for the Expos by last year’s All-Star Game. The one that is supposed to have a recommendation for relocation by this year’s All-Star Game — which, ironically, is taking place in Houston.

Wouldn’t that be priceless? Collins going to Houston to get the final shaft at the ballpark he, in essence, built for the Astros. Collins had a deal to buy the Astros nearly nine years ago, only to see it fall through when voters narrowly approved a referendum for a new ballpark in Houston.

“Drayton McLane just wrote me a wonderful letter. … He said, ‘Keep the faith,’” Collins said.

He might want to keep a few lawyers as well. A trash can probably won’t do the trick this time.

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