Overlooking D.C. would be capital offense

John Steadman

March 25, 1991|By John Steadman

Selection of the one city that has all the prerequisites for being awarded a National League baseball expansion franchise is easy. It's Washington, where a game so proud to proclaim and parade as the national pastime has too long denied itself a position of prestige in our nation's capital. Surveys and inspection tours aren't necessary.

Washington also has three irrefutable advantages the other contenders -- Denver, St. Petersburg, Miami, Orlando and Buffalo -- can't even begin to include in their resumes:

* An available open-air stadium, seating 56,572.

* The largest metropolitan-area population base, 4,716,000, from among any of the six locations.

* A television market that is seventh in the nation.

Yes, all of that and much more.

Washington also is the largest city in the country without a major-league baseball team. When critics point out that dear old D.C. lost two big-league clubs in the past, they are dealing unfairly. Baltimore, in fact, was a three-time loser with the National League, American League and Federal League before it got a fourth chance. It's a matter of record.

In fact, Washington was major league in name only. It suffered severely under the Griffith family regime, which pulled away for Minnesota in 1961, and that of Bob Short, who sold out to Texas in 1972. They were bad operations. When other teams had scouting staffs of 50 or 60, Washington had one man, Joe Cambria, and only five farm clubs at a period when most of the opposition had between 20 and 34 minor-league affiliates for the development of players.

Everything was done to discourage interest in Washington. The highest ticket prices in all of baseball were charged by Short, and he was selling the worst product. There has never been a city in all of major-league baseball that has been abused to the extent that Washington has.

The most costly mistake baseball made was in 1953-54. With Washington in the American League at the time, it would have been more reasonable to put Baltimore in the National League. So instead of the Boston Braves going to Milwaukee, they would have come here, with the St. Louis Browns transferring to Milwaukee.

That would have put a National League team in Baltimore and left an American League club in Washington, one playing on the road while the other was at home and vice versa. Fans would have crossed over from both cities. Now the error can be rectified by allowing Washington admittance to the National League. It makes good business sense. Washington and Baltimore can co-exist.

Washington, to this point, has conducted a weak campaign to regain its well-deserved place in the major-league sun. It ought -- to be emphasizing President George Bush's deep interest in baseball, and it ought to be reminding the major leagues they have an exemption from antitrust laws, the most important piece of legislation that has favored any industry, in or out of sports. Let that be subject to change in Congress and baseball will again embrace Washington. It has sense enough to realize the game's monopolistic position may not withstand a challenge.

If Washington is denied expansion, then Congress ought to take a look at revoking the special dispensation baseball was provided in a landmark decision in 1922. How is it that football, basketball, hockey, soccer, lacrosse and other professional sports don't have the same advantage? Baseball takes the good Washington offers but fails to reciprocate.

That's one way for Washington to get the attention of the expansion committee. Hardball tactics, you suggest, but standing around playing the part of the smiling host, as it conducts a tour of RFK Stadium, isn't going to avail it a thing. After looking in on Washington today, the expansion committee flies to Buffalo in the afternoon and will be in Denver tomorrow.

It previously went to the three Florida locations, Miami, Orlando and St. Petersburg. Since it will award only two expansion cities, the four losers will be able to cry in their beer.

The Baltimore Orioles -- unlike the Senators, who welcomed the Browns to Baltimore -- claim neutrality in the expansion process. A mind reader we know disagrees. Washington has the best credentials and even holds a promise given to it in 1972 that when expansion occurred again, it would be given first priority. Washington is major league; the others mere pretenders.

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