Baseball Knows the Value of a Dollar


June 17, 1991|By WILLIAM NEIKIRK

Washington. -- One, two, three strikes you're out, Washington. Another time at the bat, another sad walk to the dugout, without a major-league baseball team.

Perhaps one should be amazed. Here's a city that just lured 800,000 people to watch a parade of marching troops and rumbling tanks, that can produce the president and members of Congress in a flicker, that includes some of the highest-income areas in the nation, that is rich in culture and history. Yet it loses to the likes of Miami and Denver in the race for a new baseball team.

I am not amazed, not even mildly surprised. The only time I was taken aback was some months ago when this city seriously entertained the idea that there was a good chance that it could land a team.

To take this seriously one would have to suspend all understanding of business and economics and rely on the argument that simply because this is the nation's capital, with its power and prestige and recognizable names, major-league baseball should grant a franchise by dint of privilege.

To the credit of major-league baseball, it still values and understands the dollar, and all the work and sweat that earning, owning and leveraging it implies. Here in Washington, they do not understand the dollar. They think it is something magically produced by the government and meted out to the rest of the country according to the wisdom that only can be developed here.

The private economy in this city, unlike that of other major capitals in the world, has yet to develop world-class status. It is not London, Tokyo or Paris, all of which have learned that a city's growth and prosperity depend on much more than marble palaces and the generosity of the public purse.

Here there is a pervasive sense of entitlement that the huge budget of the U.S. government will and should sustain and drive the city and its affluent suburban environs to glory. But there is not a balanced private economy here, for all its money. It's a metropolitan area full of lawyers, doctors, journalists, bankers and lobbyists, but precious few people who created their own businesses and wealth independent of the government.

One of the city's wealthiest people is Robert Strauss, a prominent lawyer and politico whom President Bush recently named as ambassador to the Soviet Union. Reporting it, someone called Mr. Strauss ''the ultimate capitalist.'' But he made his money representing clients before the U.S. government. He's not the ultimate capitalist. He's the ultimate capitalist tool.

This is not a city of capitalists. What can you name that can be legitimately stamped ''Made in Washington'' other than political reputations good and bad or government policy that affects the lives of citizens around the globe? Not much that comes immediately to mind. They don't even make good souvenirs here.

Major-league baseball made a bottom-line decision in denying Washington an expansion team. The city's financial package was unimpressive despite this area's overall affluence, and there was the not-so-little matter of another major-league team, the Baltimore Orioles, being less than an hour away.

Isn't it ironic that the city of deep pockets, which can summon enough money to rescue the savings-and-loan industry, give aid to the Soviet Union or finance a bloated military, can't raise enough money to win a baseball team? Well, there are two Washingtons, to be sure. There is the Washington of government and there is Washington the metropolitan area, divided, dependent and dejected.

For years the private economy here thrived because of the steady income derived from government workers and money spun off to consultants and think tanks, largely because of the Cold War. Austerity never pinched, because the government simply would borrow more money to sustain this system whenever a larger deficit loomed.

In fact, about the only thing Washington as a whole manufactures and exports is debt. At this it has achieved world-class status.

But it has never been a great center of risk. It has never wanted to make anything, invest in anything, dream of anything, except words and ideas that would get the next person elected or justify a particular government policy. And this is the way you amass enough money to start buying baseball teams. The sense of entitlement that permeates everything has dulled any competitive edge that might have turned the city into something other than the country's Giant Sponge.

A few years ago, this area experienced an economic boom because it appeared its dependency formula would work forever. When the bust came, just as it did in New England, it took banks and businesses down with it, showing that even parasitic economies can experience speculative bubbles.

Now that Washington has been ruled out, you hear stirrings of a victim mentality developing. Some blame loss of a team on an anti-Washington bias out in the country, racism, or the fact that the capital city has no political representation in Congress.

Perhaps you could make a good case that some of these elements affected the decision, but I don't think they were crucial. Washington failed because it was forced to put up its own money, instead of someone else's. When it gets to the point it can land a baseball team, it will have proven that it can run the country too.

William Neikirk is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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