- The Washington Times - Friday, May 22, 2009

The Baltimore-D.C. area is strong enough to support two teams, and any notion to resurrect that old argument is misguided and misinformed.

Those who made that case before baseball returned in 2005 and still cling to that notion are, as Roger Clemens might say, “misremembering” that first season in the District.

Nearly 5.4 million fans that season paid to watch the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals, who face each other this weekend in a three-game “Battle of the Beltways” interleague series at Nationals Park.

And don’t tell me there aren’t enough baseball fans to support both teams when the Orioles drew 3.7 million fans in 1997 and when five minor league teams have sprung up in the region in the past 20 years, drawing about 1.5 million fans last season.

The real argument is whether the region can support two bad baseball owners. That’s not a test of support any fan base should have to endure.

Orioles owner Peter Angelos and Nationals owner Ted Lerner have turned the “Field of Dreams” mantra on its head. “If you build it, they will come”? With these clubs, it’s “If you destroy it, they will stay away.”

Angelos took the golden goose that was the Orioles and turned it into a pigeon. It is hard to believe that attendance at Camden Yards, at an all-time high of 3.7 million in 1997, by last season had fallen to just 1.9 million - a decline of nearly 50 percent.

In the District, the Lerner family managed the same feat - only much more quickly.

The former Montreal Expos arrived in 2005 as an orphan franchise decimated by years of decline, including three years of ownership by Major League Baseball. They were greeted in the District by an antiquated ballpark and no television coverage in the first season because of a dispute between Comcast and MASN, the new sports network Angelos had started.

Yet the Nationals drew 2.7 million fans that year - almost 34,000 a game at RFK Stadium. They drew that many fans despite everything that was working against them.

Yes, that was the first season for baseball in the District in 33 years. And yes, that team was entertaining and competitive - it produced a winning record in the first half of the year and finished 81-81.

But all that proves is there are “real” baseball fans here. Nobody showed up at RFK that season for charity.

The Lerners took over the franchise midway through the 2006 season and managed to squander that foundation of success. Even when they were given a new ballpark, the Lerner-led Nationals last season drew just 2.3 million - the lowest attendance in the first season at any new ballpark in the Camden Yards era.

That means the Pirates in 2001 drew more fans in the first season at their new ballpark - 2.4 million of them - even after eight straight losing seasons. We’re talking Pittsburgh here.

The issue is not baseball. The support is here. It has been proved.

And the issue is not just winning baseball - or winning sports for that matter. The Wizards were the hottest ticket in town not long ago simply by making the second round of the playoffs. Same with the Capitals this season. The Redskins haven’t won a Super Bowl since the 1991 season. The Orioles haven’t won the World Series since 1983.

Fans don’t want to be taken for fools. They want to know, when they come to the arena or the ballpark, that they will be watching a team that at least has a chance to win.

They aren’t demanding a champion. They just want value for the large sums of money they spend at Camden Yards and Nationals Park.

Eleven straight losing seasons in Baltimore and a second straight 100-loss season for Washington is not value. Again, it’s not a charity - though Angelos and the Lerners seem to treat it that way.

Why should fans care about woeful attendance? (An aside here: Google “woeful Washington Nationals” and see how many entries pop up.) Neither team is going anywhere, so why does it matter?

Here’s why everyone - baseball fans and taxpayers in Maryland and the District - should care. It is more than just a sports issue. It is a public policy issue.

Maryland has lost millions of dollars in ticket and concession tax revenue because of declining attendance at Camden Yards. Likely so will the District. You can be sure the stadium financing plan wasn’t built on a fan base of about 12,000 season tickets, which is an estimate since the owners refuse to disclose that number. In 2003, Deputy Mayor Eric Green testified that the District is hoping for a “stabilized” fan base of 30,000.

Here’s a number few would have expected: The Orioles and Nationals are on pace to draw a combined 3.4 million fans. The Orioles, in each of their first six years at Camden Yards, drew more than that.

There are enough baseball fans here. There just aren’t enough suckers.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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