Capital Concerns

Next year will make it a decade for yours truly living in the Washington, DC area.

I remain none the wiser about the Washingtonian sports landscape than when I arrived.

I don't get the local television sports media, which won't give you out-of-town scores but will break into regularly scheduled programming if Joe Gibbs sneezes. I don't get the Bullets-to-Wizards thing, even more than I didn't get Michael Jordan Part Deux or the abomination that was Gar Heard. I don't get why the Capitals moved from Landover to a sparkling arena in a perfect area for nightlife, accessible via the Metro ... and they still only draw about 2,000 fans more than they did at that glorified roller rink called the Cap Centre.

I don't get Tony Kornheiser. I wish I didn't get Michael Wilbon pontificating on anything that isn't based out of Chicago. And try as I might, I will never, ever, ever, ever get why the good fans of DC haven't risen up and burned the studios of SportsTalk 980 to the ground for subjecting their aural senses to former Georgetown coach John Thompson's talk show. There are probably 1,000 kids who paid their way through the Connecticut School of Broadcasting who'd sell a kidney to get on the air; Thompson gets afternoon drive, doesn't know but jack and squat about anything not played with a hoop and backboard, and has the rhetorical presence of Mumbles from the Dick Tracy comics on horse tranquilizers.

On top of all that, I never got the baseball thing. That insatiable quest to bring America's pastime back to the District after losing two franchises to Minnesota and Texas over the last century. Check that: two horrendously inept franchises that stoked more apathy in fans than passion.

I started understanding the sense of loss DC fans felt when the Senators left (again) when I met Pat Malone while working for SportsFan Magazine. Pat's the kind of guy who qualifies as more fanatic than fan; unless you think a simple "fan" would rent a plane and fly a banner that read "Come Home -- Play Ball in Washington, DC!" over the Rangers' Arlington Stadium in 2001.

Malone's the guy who clued me in on the frustrating demise of the second Washington Senators franchise. How owner Bob Short rebuffed offers to sell the team to people ranging from Bob Hope to Bill Veeck, and stole the franchise for the Lone Star State. About fan anger so intense, the Senators' last home game ended in a forfeit when fans stormed the RFK Stadium field -- with Washington winning -- with two down in the top of the ninth.

Malone wrote a piece for SFM about his quest to return baseball to DC. This passage captures why fans like Pat would embark on such a quest:

"I moved back to the Washington area in 1975 while the wounds of losing the Senators were still fresh. My love of baseball had waned a bit. I no longer had a hometown team to call my own, one to root for and read about in the morning paper ... I was, however, convinced that a groundswell of fan support for a DC team might put enough pressure on MLB to make [another Washington franchise] a possibility."

To me, DC had a baseball team. It's just that it played in Baltimore. When Cal Ripken closed out his consecutive games streak, you could have counted on one hand the number of baseball fans in Washington that were thinking about getting their own franchise ("One, Pat Malone ... er, uh..."). The region was painted in orange and black. Camden Yards was close to two hours away from any part of the District (depending on traffic), yet the stadium might as well have resided in a DC suburb for the number of fans who trekked to see "dem O's, hon."

I always chuckled when proponents of moving the Montreal Expos to either DC or Northern Virginia would downplay the economic and fanatic impact the move would have on the Orioles. Peter Angelos is a scumbag who couldn't put together a winning team if his law degree depended on it, but he was never once wrong about how his franchise will be adversely affected by the Expos' relocation.

Now that the 'Spos are (nearly) the Washington Whatevers, let's all drop the spin and come clean: this kills about a third of the Orioles' consumer base. You can hear the season tickets being cancelled. You can envision the racks of Baltimore caps being cleared for the new DC lids. In three or four years, Angelos won't even have that sterling ballpark as a draw when DC's $400 million baby is born on the Anacostia River.

That's why the financial safety net Major League Baseball has given Angelos is absolutely necessary. The scuttlebutt is that Major League Baseball will set a revenue floor for the Orioles and then give additional financial aid to the team if it fails to reach that number. It will also make up the difference should the franchise depreciate between now and when Angelos decides to sell the team. Finally, MLB will help create a regional sports network that televise Baltimore and Washington baseball games, with Angelos keeping 67 percent of the revenue.

Go ahead -- accuse Angelos of being everything from a liar to the antichrist. The bottom line is that average attendance at Orioles games has gone from a high of 45,816 in 1997 to 30,302 last season. Blame the fortunes of the team, but ask yourself how many of those fans who stopped coming were from DC and Virginia ... and how many will still be Orioles fans when the franchise reverses its fortunes?

Changing Hats

In 2002, I wrote a feature for SFM entitled "DC Diehards: Would local fans give up their favorite teams if MLB returns to DC?" We conducted an unscientific survey that found 54% of respondents would continue to root for their favorite team first, and then the new DC team.

This has more to do with the transient nature of the region than anything else. You're not just talking about Orioles fans here; you've got the Yankees fans, the Red Sox fans, the Phillies fans, the Mets fans. You've got people from all across the country who relocate here for government jobs, and then find a local watering hole to watch the out-of-town games.

It's the same for all the sports in DC. I know a guy who'll root for the Bruins first and the Caps second. I know a guy who will live and die for the Celtics, but still hopes the Wizards aren't a disaster every year. The only exception to this trend is football: If you're not born a Redskins fan, man oh man, do you learn to hate that team if you're living in DC.

As a Mets fan, there'd be no better time to trade in my orange-and-blue for whatever Washington's new colors will be. My franchise is a joke -- mismanaged, a Yankees-lite approach to the roster, a farm system that makes Ethiopia look like Iowa by comparison. (Sure, the Mets have snagged Montreal GM Omar Minaya to head baseball operations. But what if that Shea taint gets him like it got Richard Hidalgo?)

The point is that it would be a perfect opportunity for a disgruntled Mets fans to jump ship and accept the light of the Washington Whatevers into my heart. I could join in the euphoria of Opening Day. I could chat around the coffee machine with other DC fans about "our" team. Hell, I could even start loathing the Mets as a division rival.

But then I remember '86, and my father telling me about '69. I remember that the Mets need to suck before they can have another "miracle," before they can be "amazin'" again. Pathetic as they are, they're still my Mets.

So it'll be Shea Stadium before RFK Stadium, although I'll root for both teams.

I mean, a kid who dressed up like Lenny Dykstra for Halloween '87 couldn't just turn in his cleats like that, could he?

The Pressure of a Name

Four tasks lie ahead for the Expos-turned-Washingtonians and their fans.

1. Locate Northern Virginia. Raise your arm. Extend your index finger. Point, and laugh. Really hard. Laugh at the fact that Northern Virginia officials were convinced that Major League Baseball was going to choose a stadium site without mass transit access (and practically in West Virginia) over one in the heart of the Nation's Capitol. Better start construction on that NASCAR track, boys -- baseball's for city folk.

2. Find an ownership group. Major League Baseball owns this team right now. It will sell it before Spring Training begins. It needs to select an owner who will not only be willing to lay out some initial costs for what amounts to a start-up franchise, but one who will be willing to spend some free agent coin in order to make this team a contender. Otherwise, DC baseball might as well be DC basketball or DC hockey.

3. Find the funding. You know, there's no way the political opposition to the Expos relocation to the District is going to keep the team from coming here. But finding that money for a $400 million stadium is going to be ... well, "taxing," if you catch my obvious drift. One benefit to baseball in DC: daily box scores will provide better math education that the District's pathetic public schools.

4. Naming the team. The new owners will select the name. I'm not a betting man, but I'd lay big money on the moniker not being either the "Expos" or the "Angeloses."

There are a few names floating around right now that bear mentioning. First, naturally, are the "Senators." The team would have to buy the name from the Texas Rangers, but that deal could be brokered. The question is: should it? The Senators were a pair of pathetic franchises. Why not start fresh?

The "Nationals" are getting a big push. I heard the "Rockets" pimped a few times on the radio. Jimmy Patterson, publisher of SportsFan Magazine, is partial to the "Federals." Feds for short. Can't wait the for the first Wiretap Night, sponsored by Verizon...

I've always believed that new teams shouldn't be afraid to repeat names already used in other sports. So when I say I support the Washington Eagles, I do so knowing Redskin fans will cringe at the noting of rooting for a team with that name.

But seriously: could you imagine the first Eagles/Orioles interleague series?

I'd like to rule out one option: the Grays. As in the Washington Homestead Grays of the Negro League. As noble as the name would be, is there a chance in hell the word "Gays" doesn't slip into at least one headline?

Au Revoir

Look, we all know in our hearts that baseball would have been better off contracting the Expos and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. (And spare me the "Tampa turnaround" garbage. With the Expos gone, the Devil Rays are the only franchise in Major League Baseball that gets outdrawn by its hometown's hockey team: 17,820-16,148).

But the Rays are still in Florida (until their inevitable relocation) and the Expos are now in DC. Which of course means that Montreal is dead and buried as a baseball town.

It shouldn't have been that way. "I know when I first got traded here in '92, all three years I was here, we had fans. And I know in '94 we were drawing 25,000, 30,000 fans. If you win, they come," said former pitcher Ken Hill to the Toronto Globe and Mail.

Montreal had a chance to become a baseball town. But after seeing Randy Johnson, John Wetteland, Larry Walker, Moises Alou, Pedro Martinez, Vlad Guerrero, and any promise of a downtown stadium disappear over the last 15 years, what was the point of even caring about the team? That's valuable time that could be dedicated to figuring out who the right-winger on the Habs' fourth line will be that season.

If it weren’t for Montreal landing a franchise in 1968, there would not have been a franchise in Toronto in 1977. And without the Blue Jays, Mitch Williams would have a World Series ring, so you can see how important the Expos really were.

My last grandfather was an Expos fan. Living in Montreal, I remember him lamenting how the regional media treated the team, and how all it would take was a stadium closer to the heart of the city for the team to sustain its success.

He gave me my first and only Expos hat.

I'll be thinking of him when I buy my first Washington baseball cap next year.

SportsFan MagazineGreg Wyshynski is also a weekly columnist for SportsFan Magazine. His columns appear every Saturday on Sports Central. You can e-mail Greg at [email protected].

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