D.C. baseball, slot machines early tests for Ehrlich

Commentary

January 16, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

AS A WARM-UP to his inauguration yesterday in Annapolis, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. ruffled a few feathers recently by saying he would be supportive of a major-league baseball team in Washington.

Actually, the only feathers he could have really ruffled were those of Peter Angelos, the Orioles owner who has taken every opportunity to broadcast his position: A major-league team relocated in or near Washington would be a bum deal for the Orioles.

Angelos contends both teams would circle the drain of mediocrity, something the Orioles have attempted without a second team siphoning from "their" market.

Most Baltimore baseball fans probably would agree with Angelos. It doesn't seem likely that a team located in Washington could help the Orioles' bottom line, even if the idea of a second team, particularly a National League club, piques the interest of fans. Some like to think that another team in the Orioles' back yard might make the club push harder - in all areas. It's a theory.

Still, given his status as governor-elect of Maryland at the time, maybe Ehrlich the fan championed a Washington team before Ehrlich the state leader could stop him.

Later, a spokeswoman for Ehrlich backtracked on his behalf. The new governor would be supportive of a Washington team if it did not negatively affect the one that exists in Baltimore. Studies would need to be done.

We all know about studies. The Orioles have issued studies that say ticket and broadcast revenues would diminish in Baltimore with a second team in this market. Meanwhile, bid groups lobbying for the rights to bring the Expos to Washington or Northern Virginia have their own studies. Guess what they say?

One thing's for sure: With Major League Baseball looking to nail down a new city for the Montreal Expos before the July All-Star Game, Ehrlich will no doubt have another chance to speak his mind on Washington baseball. The question is: Will his position remain the same, now that he no longer has an office in the nation's capital?

Ehrlich's leadership skills will surely be tested far more severely on issues other than the impending relocation of the Expos to a town near us.

In fact, we can think of at least one other issue that is already stacked high on Ehrlich's plate, ready for his immediate consumption: the state's beleaguered horse racing industry, which is now all about slot machines.

That's right: slots.

Maryland, a state rich in racing tradition, has primed itself as a battleground for the legalization of slot machine gambling. This is regardless of the fact that these one-armed bandits have nothing in principle to do with horse racing.

There's a reason racing fans would be open to the idea of slots. What racing fan, even the occasional ones who take interest in the Triple Crown, doesn't want to imagine there's a simple, quick solution to bolstering the sport?

It's an antiquated industry to which we feel some primal relationship, especially because it does a neat job marrying agriculture, breeding, training and, yes, gaming.

That's why, if you stretch the idea of betting and gambling on horses, you can sort of arrive at slots, which are being billed by the new legions of casino lobbyists in Annapolis as a panacea.

(Maybe we should just install some slots in Iraq?)

That horse racing is an industry that has fallen behind the times is without question. That something should be done to reinvigorate tracks, fatten purses and pique the interest of spectators is also unquestioned. But it's too bad that now there's an appearance that the owners of Maryland's racetracks were as interested in nailing down a sideline deal for a cut of slot profits as they were interested in upgrading their venues/sport.

None of this tattered racing industry business is Ehrlich's fault. Yet for a new governor who openly campaigned to legalize slots at Maryland's four racetracks, Ehrlich arrived in Annapolis yesterday with some muck on his shoes.

Recent revelations about the Maryland slot movement prove one thing: Where there is the possibility of legalizing gambling, there's enough dirt to fill every silo from Bowie to Timonium - and beyond.

Hands are out everywhere. Hands are in pockets everywhere already. Special interest groups and even a dead man - Jack Kent Cooke, the former Washington Redskins owner whose estate is owed some slot machine money - are in on this money grab.

No wonder Ehrlich had to issue a strong warning last week, imploring racing industry insiders and state officials to take a chill. Ehrlich wants slots money to ease the state's horrific $1.8 billion deficit, and if slot machines at racetracks supposedly will help racing, it's a story he and others are willing to peddle.

In November, the Maryland Racing Commission unanimously approved the sale of Pimlico and Laurel racetracks to Magna Entertainment.

What you need to know is, on that day, the commission and track owners - new and old - gushed about a new day dawning for Maryland horse racing. The new owners have a plan that eventually would turn Maryland's tracks into "racinos," linking Maryland to a worldwide TV/betting network and enhancing on-site revenues with, of course, slot machines.

Even at that moment, it all sounded too good to be true. Turns out there was good reason to be suspicious. What is supposed to be a remedy for fixing the racing industry is really a roiling sea of greed.

The new governor has his hands full - and these are just the sports issues.

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