D.C. passes expansion inspection with flying colors

John Steadman

March 26, 1991|By John Steadman

WASHINGTON -- Attempting to anticipate the National League expansion committee is tantamount to trying to pick up the spin on a curveball. It's not tipping its pitches.

Washington, though, has reason to be elated over the reaction it received from the inspection party that literally received red-carpet treatment when it visited the district yesterday for a preview of facilities and to discuss the possibility of returning baseball to the nation's capital.

Every aspect was positive, even to the discussion regarding whether the Baltimore Orioles could block a proposal that would bring a major-league team to Washington.

Douglas Danforth, president of the Pittsburgh Pirates, chairman of the owners' expansion group and a most impressive gentleman, explained:

"If a vote were taken, they [the Orioles] could not block it. It would take a majority in the American League and three-quarters in the National League to deny."

In offering his overall impressions, after touring RFK Stadium, and walking in on a red carpet, he called it "a significant show." This was the reaction of Danforth and members of his committee, namely Fred Wilpon, president of the New York Mets; Bill Giles, president of the Philadelphia Phillies; and Bill White, league president.

They liked what they saw and heard.

"It's pretty hard to ignore the demographics of the D.C. area," Danforth said. "It's close to another major-league city, Baltimore, and one of the questions that has to be asked is can the concentration of people support two major-league clubs."

Then he explained that in the case of teams in San Francisco and Oakland, plus a similar arrangement in Chicago, the situation enhanced baseball interest. He related that when the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants defected to California it left the New York Yankees alone in what had been a three-team market, and they took a plunge at the gate.

Regarding the funding of a new club in Washington, Danforth said, "It looks to be well capitalized," after having a 65-minute meeting with John Akridge III, a resident of Oxford, Md., who is heading the Washington effort. The asking price for an expansion club is placed at $95 million so Akridge must have displayed sufficient equity.

The condition of RFK Stadium, with foul lines measuring 335 feet, and 410 to centerfield, and a well-prepared playing field, was surprising. First used by the late, lamented Washington Senators in 1962, the park shows no signs of deterioration and is in excellent shape. Sky boxes, new locker rooms and an improved press box would be part of improvement plans.

Addressing why Washington lost two franchises (Baltimore lost three), Danforth said what virtually everyone else knows. "It's a different city today."

Then Giles spoke up: "Personally, Washington has an impressive group [of potential owners]. I have kind of changed my mind. It's about how two teams in a marketplace can be better than one."

Added Danforth, "There is no precedent for indemnification so that wouldn't be a consideration [regarding payment to the Orioles]. We realize how the Washington teams left. It wasn't a reflection on attendance."

Part of the printed material that was passed out contained a quote from President George Bush, who, in 1989, said, "Some day I'd love to throw out the first ball in Washington."

And Calvin Griffith, who was president when the Senators defected to Minnesota in 1961, said: "When Baltimore wanted a big-league team [1954], the Senators had approval rights. We could have blocked Baltimore from the league, but decided to help them out. The Orioles were thus born. Now it's Baltimore's turn to return the favor for the new Washington Senators."

Washington offers obvious advantages, including the seventh television market and 3.9 million residents in the D.C. area. There also are more people, ages 25 to 44, in Washington than any National League city; it has the highest median income in the U.S.; the safest and cleanest subway in the country; plus it's the capital of the nation.

These are all things that can't even be remotely challenged by the other expansion applicants, including Buffalo, Denver, Miami, Orlando and St. Petersburg. The race is on and Washington is moving up in the pack. It's certainly not regressing.

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