- - Tuesday, June 25, 2019

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Major League Baseball really misses a Washington without baseball.

During the 34 years the nation’s capital went without a team, baseball had its patsy, its stalking horse, something owners could use to hold the threat of relocation over the heads of their respective cities.

Seattle, you’re not going to build a new ballpark for the Mariners? Somebody call AAA and map out a route for the moving vans across the country to the District.

Pittsburgh, that massive stadium at the three rivers that we had to share with the Steelers for three decades? That won’t work anymore, we need a more intimate ballpark just for the Pirates. What, you won’t build one? Let’s stop in Breezewood for a bite on our way to Washington.

Houston, you have a problem. Your owner wants a new ballpark. The Astrodome — once hailed as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” — is just a big trailer park now. The politicians have refused to listen, so your owner has made a tentative deal to sell the Astros to a Northern Virginia businessman. You got a reprieve when the commissioner held up the sale until the outcome of ballpark funding was decided by voters. But if you hadn’t voted for the money to build the new ballpark, there would have been people walking around the nation’s capital wearing cowboy hats and spurs rooting for the Washington Astros.



Baltimore? Yes, Baltimore, where the history of baseball was changed in 1992 when Camden Yards opened its doors and opened the doors for a generation of retro-style ballparks that brought the fans back to the game. That ballpark was built on the fears of Washington lawyer and Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams moving the Orioles down the road to Washington, within walking distance of Duke Zeibert’s.

The only franchise that failed to successfully use the threat of baseball-hungry Washington to extract the concessions needed to keep their team, was, of course, the very baseball franchise that moved to Washington following the 2004 season — the Montreal Expos.

It’s more than a decade later now, but you can bet Tampa Rays owner Stu Sternberg wishes that Expos’ move never happened and he had the District to use as leverage in his stadium fight in Florida.

News came out last week that owners sitting on baseball’s executive council gave the Rays permission to look into the possibility of playing a split-season schedule between St. Petersburg and Montreal.

Might as well have been Sarasota and Saskatchewan.

Moving the team to Canada for a big chunk of the season is the kind of move made by an owner who is desperate for a new ballpark in St. Petersburg — one funded primarily with government money.

Sternberg has a winning, competitive team that plays in a tomb known as Tropicana Field — a sealed dome stadium build in 1990 to try to attract a baseball team to come to St. Petersburg.

You see, St. Petersburg walked in the same shoes as Washington for many years — used by owners seeking new ballparks as a threat for relocation.

One of those threats — moving the Chicago White Sox to the Florida city, a threat that resulted in Illinois politicians making back door deals for funding for a new Comiskey Park — resulted in a lawsuit by St. Petersburg officials that forced baseball to award the city an expansion franchise in 1995.

It was a bad decision then, and has remained so. It’s a weak market without strong corporate presence to support a successful baseball franchise. The other markets up for expansion in 1995 were Phoenix, and Northern Virginia — which had come out of nowhere in a short time, thanks to businessman Bill Collins, to impress owners.

These days, without a Washington — a top 10 market with a ready-made place to play in RFK Stadium — to threaten cities with, Sternberg and MLB have had to manufacture a boogeyman.

Enter Montreal and this absurd split-home proposal that was likely shot down within hours by St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, who reminded the Rays that with an ironclad lease until 2027, the Rays are not climbing out of that tomb anytime soon to play in Montreal or anyplace else.

The sad part of this is seeing the city of Montreal taunted with the prospect of baseball’s return.

That’s not happening.

Like Seattle, Pittsburgh, Houston and other cities, Montreal had more than 10 years to leverage the threat of moving to Washington for a new ballpark, but was unable to mobilize enough government and business support to stop baseball from leaving.

There is a vocal, organized movement in Montreal now to bring baseball back to the booming city. But the reality is, it is difficult to take Montreal as serious as the relocation threat was here in Washington, where, in the end, you had two local jurisdictions fighting for baseball’s return and no shortage of bidders seeking to own the team.

Montreal is a great city, one of the greatest in North America. Believe me when I tell you that baseball writers are rooting for Montreal. But as the refrain often went inside the game, “Baseball will be successful in Montreal when they play it with hockey sticks.”

Unfortunately for Stu Sternberg, it’s not much better in St. Petersburg.

What he wouldn’t give for a Washington without baseball.

Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday and Sunday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

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