Insider Baseball: Why a Major League Team Is Headed to Washington

By Perry, Dayn | The Washington Monthly, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Insider Baseball: Why a Major League Team Is Headed to Washington


Perry, Dayn, The Washington Monthly


CALVIN GRIFFITH, ONETIME OWNER of the original Washington Senators baseball team, was once asked why he moved the team in 1960 from Washington, D.C., to Minnesota. Griffith paused for a moment to consider. "Black people don't go to ball games, but they'll fill up a rassling ring and put up such a chant they'll scare you to death," he replied. "We came [to Minnesota] because you've got good, hardworking white people here."

Griffith's answer may have been ugly, but in a sense, it wasn't unusual. Since time immemorial, owners of major league baseball teams have blamed others for their teams' financial failures. Griffith slighted the fans; when the District lost a second incarnation of the Senators in 1972, owners of that franchise cited the city's refusal to pony up public funds for a new stadium, an unusual practice at the time, though common today. In the 30 years since baseball left Washington, assorted advocacy groups, civic organizations, business alliances, and even lawmakers, have lobbied to return a major league franchise to the nation's capital. And for 30 years, their efforts have fallen short.

It looks like that's about to change. Economically, conditions are ripe for baseball to return to D.C. It's the last big metropolitan area without a baseball team, and, contrary to press reports, at least one existing franchise will probably be looking for a new home soon. Politically, too, the fix is in for D.C. Owners are fearful that Congress may take away a linchpin of their profits: baseball's legal monopoly. The best way to maintain this status is to give Washington lawmakers a team for their city. Moreover, the Beltway power brokers who've been working for years to bring back a major league team now have the ultimate closer: former owner, and current president, George W. Bush.

Baseball's Big Bluff

If this were a Hollywood movie, the script would call for Griffith's original Senators, the Minnesota Twins, to return to D.C. A likelier scenario involves relocating the Montreal Expos. By any measure, the team is foundering. Its home attendance last season was just 619,451, the lowest figure in franchise history and less than half of that drawn by the runner-up, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. To put this in perspective, the Seattle Mariners drew 677,672 fans--just during the month of June.

Readers of the sports page probably saw the stories last month about how baseball owners had voted to disband two teams before next season (and how the moribund Expos are sure to be one of them). But if they were discerning, readers also should have noted that the owners' vote to "contract" major league baseball was not binding and probably requires the players' union to agree to it. Translation: Owners aren't really going to fold two teams. It's just a bargaining ploy for the commissioner's office to use against the Players Association when they sit down this month to negotiate a new collective-bargaining agreement. A thumbnail analysis of the costs of contraction--buying out the owners, meeting legal fees, paying off stadium leases and entire minor-league systems, just for starters--shows that the money saved would be negligible, to say nothing of the public-relations disaster for organized baseball and the difficulty of getting it past the players' union. It's a bluff.

So the question becomes not "whether" the Expos will relocate, but "where"? The smart bet is Washington. The Beltway region is the seventh-largest media market in the country and, by some measures, boasts the highest median household income. So, despite the fact that two earlier Washington Senators teams sought greener pastures, few doubt that D.C. is a perfectly viable market for major league baseball. Not surprisingly, baseball commissioner Bud Selig's relocation envoy Corey Bush has made a number of trips to the region.

What D.C. also boasts that competitors such as Charlotte, Las Vegas, and Portland, Oregon, do not is the political advantage that inescapably resides in the nation's capital. …

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