Landing team in D.C. hit or miss

Patience, funds, luck needed

`long way to go'

January 20, 2002|By Jon Morgan and Peter Schmuck | Jon Morgan and Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Washington's chances of landing its own baseball team appear to be improving as the game's internal squabbles and economic troubles near a boiling point.

Several franchises have been identified as struggling and at least one may be put into trusteeship. Baseball's plan to close a pair of teams has run into serious obstacles. And labor talks - always a source of anguish for the sport - are just getting serious, with the players union vowing to fight for relocation instead of elimination of sickly teams.

And on Thursday, commissioner Bud Selig issued his most positive comments to date on the chances of the capital returning to the big leagues.

But, as fans in Baltimore, who endured 12 years in football purgatory, can attest, getting a sports franchise requires lots of patience, lots of money - and lots of luck.

Washington's strongest selling point is its demographics: it's the biggest metro area in the nation without a baseball team, and it includes some of the richest communities in the world. Add in the fact that it is the capital of the Free World and home to three other successful sports teams.

Tom Korologos, a lobbyist with Timmons and Co. in Washington, is one of the city's fans who would welcome another team nearby. His firm has eight premium seats at Oriole Park, and would probably get a similar number at a Washington stadium.

"I use them for clients and people around town. We give them to members of Congress," Korologos said.

Chief among the obstacles that remain is the absence of a firm commitment by a government body to build a stadium in either of the jurisdictions vying for a team: Washington and Northern Virginia.

Meanwhile, Orioles owner Peter Angelos is likely to throw up as many roadblocks as he can, and other cities, such as Portland, Ore., are trying to assemble their own bids that could compete with the Washington area.

"I don't think it is a done deal by any means. There is a long way to go," said Martin Klepper, a specialist in sports financing and partner with Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom in Washington.

Klepper would like to see a team in the city, and thinks the private and public resources exist to both build a stadium and supply it with fans and money. But, as someone who has assembled stadium deals in other cities, he knows the process is fraught with peril.

"I think it is very feasible. There is a strong, pent-up demand for baseball in the D.C. area - as demonstrated by the support they provide the Orioles," Klepper said.

The Washington and Baltimore markets are sufficiently distinct that teams should be able to thrive in both markets, he said.

Another sports consultant, Chicago-based Marc Ganis, sees it differently. He says baseball would be crazy to put a team 40 miles from the Orioles, where it is sure to siphon off fans, broadcast income and corporate support.

"It is a strong market for one team. It will be a struggling market for two teams," Ganis said. "It would be a boneheaded thing for baseball to do. That doesn't mean they won't do it."

Washington has twice had and twice lost baseball franchises, most recently after the 1971 season when the Senators moved to Texas and became the Rangers.

Selig's surprise

Selig emerged on Thursday from several days of owners meetings in Arizona with a bombshell: he still favors contraction of two teams, but relocation is also a possible solution to the game's troubles, no sooner than 2003. And Washington, he said, would be a "prime candidate."

Orioles vice chairman Joe Foss said the matter of Washington didn't come up during the meetings, and was surprised by Selig's comments. The Orioles remain opposed to sharing the market with another team.

But Selig is not given to speaking off the cuff, and Washington boosters reacted to his comments the way Wall Street does to a cheery assessment by Federal Reserve Bank chairman Alan Greenspan.

"Selig wouldn't have said what he said if he hadn't taken Baltimore into account," said Frederic Malek, a financier and former chairman of Northwest Airlines who is heading a six-man investors group trying to bring a team to Washington.

"I think Major League Baseball is starting to see Washington as a possible solution to some of their problems," Malek said.

Moving a team to Washington alleviates the need to eliminate a franchise - something that is being fought by the powerful players union as well as politicians in the markets that are home to weak franchises or their minor-league affiliates. It also pleases politicians who would like to see the national pastime restored to the national capital.

"Washington is the only market that doesn't have a team that can support one," Malek said.

Ganis said Selig's comments may have been designed to appease those factions opposed to consolidation while the game's leaders figure out what to do. "I'm not saying it's disingenuous. I'm saying it helps dampen some of the fires out there," Ganis said.

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