Washington politicians should play hard ball with NL

John Steadman

June 14, 1991|By John Steadman

Someone in Washington ought to get mad. Whispering all those sweet words to major-league baseball, while seeking the favor of an expansion franchise, led only to stone-cold rejection. The language the lords of the game understand, unfortunately, is when a threat is made to their favored status to operate a monopoly.

Baseball trembles when its exclusive position is attacked legally. It had its origin in a ruling handed down by the Supreme Court in 1922. Since then baseball, in the eyes of the law, is a sport and not a business. Pro football, basketball, hockey and other athletic enterprises are considered differently than baseball. They must adhere to the same regulations as every other business and industrial enterprise in America.

But baseball enjoys an unprecedented exemption. It suddenly gets nervous, as it should, when a challenge is made to test the legality of its monopolistic position. Washington needs to get on the attack. Presenting credentials to gain a National League expansion club failed.

Miami and Denver got the call. It was in Washington where baseball received its special favor and now in that same city, abused in the past by the Griffith and Short ownerships, it gets short-shrift from the baseball establishment.

Hopefully, a national leader of substance should now inform baseball he or she is preparing legislation to deny baseball its dispensation from the Sherman antitrust laws. It's a sad commentary that such a tactic would have to be used against the commissioner and the club owners as a lever to have a major-league club awarded to the nation's capital.

But Washington found out what having the highest population and the leading TV market among the six contending cities meant to the pin-pointed heads of the National League $l expansion committee: nothing. It's time for Washington to teach baseball a serious, expensive lesson.

Put it on the carpet before a special congressional committee. Only then will Washington get the respect it deserves. The decision by the expansion stiffs confirmed the belief of what the Washington-area citizens suspected all along. It was being exploited.

It deserves a team to call its own. A true baseball purist, Pat Malone, no kin to the old Chicago Cubs pitcher and notorious elbow-bender, who is president of the Washington Senators Fan Club, says he has now made a promise to himself. And he has gone public.

"I will never, never -- and you can quote me on this -- go to another major-league game unless the hometown team is Washington," he told the Washington Times. "I'm not bitter really, just disappointed . . . Tomorrow I will wake up once again in the greatest city in the world without a major-league baseball team. Life goes on."

Washington can tell itself it has franchises in major-league football, ice hockey and basketball. But it is devoid of the most important one, baseball. This is a setback to one of the most impressive and important cities on the face of the earth. Baseball does more for the economy of a community than football, ice hockey and basketball because of its frequency of play, the crowds and the time spent there (three- and four-day stands) by visiting teams.

The nation's capital has much to offer. Its baseball fans shouldn't be beholden to Baltimore, any more than Baltimore should have had to patronize Washington during the 51-year span this city was sentenced to the minor leagues. There's an identity that a major-league baseball club has that no other sport represents.

To paraphrase an old axiom, why should Washington be first in war, first in peace and left out of major-league expansion? It's a cruel indignity that the National League didn't go there. Baseball could be the loser in not taking advantage of what Washington offers.

Without major-league baseball, Washington is thrown for a loss in civic standing and prestige. Instead of baseball being indebted to Washington, it showed it no more respect than it would for a third-rate village, or even East Bridgeport.

To save further embarrassment, Washington should change its name and, indeed, become East Bridgeport. Baseball stomped all over it. Now the exemption granted baseball needs to be focused on again and a case prepared to make sure this wrong is righted . . . or else Washington interests will pursue a lawsuit designed to strip the game of its favored position.

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