Wandering teams

August 12, 1992

San Franciscans awoke one morning last week to learn that one of their beloved teams was moving to another town. Sound familiar?

Baltimore will always have a soft spot in its heart for cities that lose sports franchises to strong-willed owners and strong-arm tactics. Yet the goings-on in San Francisco, where the baseball team owner signed an agreement to sell to a group that plans to move the club to St. Petersburg, Fla., only remotely resemble Baltimore's loss of the pro football Colts.

The agreement for the Giants' proposed sale wasn't struck in the middle of the night, as when the Colts vacated Baltimore, but it still came as a shock to San Francisco and the baseball #F establishment. For years, Giants owner Bob Lurie pined for a new home to replace wind-swept Candlestick Park. After voters defeated four referendums to build a new stadium in Northern California, Mr. Lurie's patience with his hometown ran out.

Actually, the story has greater parallels with what Baltimore endured -- or might have -- with the Orioles. The late Edward Bennett Williams intimated he would move the team to Washington if he didn't get a new stadium.

Baltimore's tale, of course, ended happily with the region basking in the glory of Oriole Park, but had the governor not been William Donald Schaefer and Mr. Williams been more committed to moving the team south, there could have been a tragic ending here, too.

Baltimoreans can hardly disapprove of the fact that sports teams relocate. The Orioles came from St. Louis, where they were nicknamed the Browns, in 1954; the original Baltimore Orioles had moved to New York in 1903, forerunners of the Yankees. The Colts had come from Dallas.

As for the baseball Giants, this would be only the second time in as many generations that they broke hearts and sought greener pastures: They fled New York for California in 1958. Our burning, familial affection for our teams belies their nomadic roots.

Even so, owners shouldn't be able to blackmail communities. They run a business, but one that isn't like any other, with anti-trust exemptions and public funding of the main capital expense.

Mr. Lurie doesn't like Candlestick Park, which gets so windy spectators wear ski parkas to summer night games. Still, more than 2 million fans, a club record, cheered the Giants to a pennant just three years ago. In this kind of public divorce, does a city's inability or unwillingness to build a new stadium constitute non-support?

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