Thursday, September 30, 2004

MONTREAL. — As I passed through customs in Montreal, the agent asked if my visit was business or pleasure.

“Both,” I said.

She asked what I did for a living, and I said I was a sportswriter for The Washington Times.

She asked about the purpose of my visit.

“To bring your baseball team back to Washington with me,” I said.

Now, I have run that line by customs agents here four times in the past, but those turned out to be just hollow boasts.

Not this time.

After more failed expectations than the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team, the Montreal Expos finally are coming to Washington. First they have to finish the season with a three-game series in New York against the Mets. So I won’t actually be bringing the team back with me today when I leave Montreal, and I hope I don’t have to undergo a body search at the airport to prove it.

The Mets. Do we hate the Mets or what?

Let’s start building those rivalries, baby. It has been 33 years since we’ve had a good hatred for a baseball team here — unless you are a diehard Washington baseball fan, in which case you can count the Baltimore Orioles, for obvious reasons.

It appears there is no reason any longer to hate the Orioles, though Expos president Tony Tavares reminded everyone yesterday a done deal is not a done deal until the deal is done.

There are two deals that are not done yet: an appeasement of Orioles owner Peter Angelos (though it is all but sealed) and a dismissal of the lawsuit filed by former Expos investors.

“I guess something could go wrong,” Tavares said. “I hesitate to say that because I don’t want to create false hope. The bottom line is I don’t anticipate any problems.”

For a change, the false hope to which he referred was for baseball fans some place other than Washington.

After the cheers have subsided here, there may be some lingering hatred. After all, this should have happened a long time ago.

Washington (and most recently Bill Collins in Northern Virginia, who deserves a lot of credit for keeping the area in the game) has been used and abused by baseball in its effort to get a new generation of ballparks built around the country.

Let us not forget it was the threat of Edward Bennett Williams moving the Orioles to Washington that helped get Camden Yards built.

And then, thanks to Collins’ aggressive efforts to buy a team and move it to Northern Virginia, ballparks were built in Seattle, Pittsburgh and Houston and perhaps even San Diego.

Remember who was running the Padres when a new ballpark there was an issue? Former Washington fixture Larry Lucchino. The fear, real or perceived, was there the franchise might relocate to Washington.

By the way, it’s tough to shake the notion Lucchino will somehow surface in all of this. He has adamantly denied he has any intention of leaving his job as president and co-owner of the Boston Red Sox. But there will not be a ballpark built to replace Fenway, and Lucchino builds ballparks. He was most responsible for the design successes at Camden Yards and was the political force behind getting the ballpark built in San Diego.

What better satisfaction than to come back home where Lucchino, working for Williams, once served as general counsel for the Washington Redskins and later as president of the Orioles? He could build this jewel of a ballpark in the District.

But I digress. This is not a time for speculation or denigration. This is not a time to hate the players or the game.

This is a time to call on those memories of being a young boy watching the Washington Senators because the pain that accompanied them has finally gone away.

This is a time when you can connect that memory of your childhood to that of your own son and daughter’s relationship with baseball, and you won’t be talking about a ghost any longer.

This is a time to start counting the days toward that day you feared you would never see in your lifetime: Opening Day in Washington.

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