- - Tuesday, October 22, 2019

HOUSTON — Somewhere on the façade outside Minute Maid Park — home of the Houston Astros and the host site for Tuesday night’s World Series Game 1 — there should be a plaque that reads, “Thank you to Washington baseball for the contribution to the building of this ballpark.”

Minute Maid Park, which opened in 2000 as Enron Field, doesn’t exist without the passion that fueled efforts to bring Major League Baseball back to Washington for decades after the Senators left for Arlington, Texas, following the 1971 season.

Houston’s Minute Maid wasn’t the only ballpark that Washington baseball built. The fear of relocation to the nation’s capital was the impetus for ballparks in Pittsburgh and Seattle as well.

QUIZ: Can you pass this World Series trivia test?

The Montreal Expos were the franchise Washington finally landed in 2005, but if the bring-baseball-back-to-Washington movement had been successful sooner, the Astros might be just a memory for Houston. There would be no 2005 National League pennant for the Astros, no 2017 World Series, no franchise-record 107 wins to celebrate this year.

Maybe that plaque should also mention Bill Collins, the businessman who wanted to bring a team to Northern Virginia. He was the one who put the city of Houston on notice that it was at risk of losing its baseball franchise, and the one who also got MLB owners rethinking their view of the Washington area as a home for the game.

For a brief period in 1995, it appeared that Collins was about to acquire the Astros and move them to Washington.

The Astros‘ owner at the time, Drayton McLane, who bought the team in 1993, claimed he had lost $80 million over four years while in the outdated Astrodome — which had opened in 1965 — and threatened to sell the team unless a new ballpark was built.

When his plea fell on deaf ears, he carried through on his threat, making plans to sell to Collins, who by 1994 had revived baseball’s interest in the Washington area by touting the business boom that had turned Northern Virginia into an economic powerhouse.

Collins aggressively sought a franchise after losing out to Tampa and Phoenix in 1995, and he had a deal to buy the Astros from McLane for $165 million. The plan was to play at RFK Stadium for several years until a new ballpark could be built in Northern Virginia.

There were roadblocks, though. The District had awakened after Collins got the attention of baseball owners and revived its own campaign to compete for the team against Northern Virginia. City leaders wanted to bring a team to the District. Plus there was the hurdle of finding a location and funding for a Northern Virginia ballpark.

The biggest problem, though, would be McLane getting approval from the other owners to allow a franchise to move. No baseball team had relocated since the Senators left, and Commissioner Bud Selig, who saw the Milwaukee Braves leave his city in 1965 for Atlanta, was not a fan of moving baseball franchises.

What resulted was an agreement to hold off on any sale and to put to a referendum vote funding for a new Astros ballpark. Selig made it clear that if the referendum failed, the sale to Collins would likely go through. McLane privately said he doubted the referendum would pass.

But then the Houston Oilers announced they were leaving for Tennessee, sending chills through Houston, with fans and leaders suddenly contemplating losing both their football and baseball teams at the same time. It was enough to get Harris County voters on board, barely, with a $265 million ballpark funding referendum in November 1996. It passed with 51% of the vote.

“This will keep baseball here well into the next century,” McLane told reporters.

That next century is off to a good start for baseball in Houston. And Houston’s decision to hang on to the Astros ultimately resulted in the return of baseball to Washington when MLB owners agreed to the relocation of the Expos in 2005.

The outcome, though, could have been dramatically different. The Nationals, in a way, will be playing the ghost of Washington baseball past, however briefly, in this series against the Astros.

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

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