D.C.-area baseball would be bad competition for Orioles

March 30, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THE CALENDAR says the Baltimore Orioles open their season tomorrow, but this is a slight fiction. Everything hinges on midsummer, when the state of the local franchise will be determined not only for now but years to come.

The schedule says the Orioles play the Cleveland Indians to open the 2003 season. But they also play for time. They open the season with a roster not dramatically different from the one that lost all but four games over the final quarter of last season.

But some time before the July break for the All-Star Game, Commissioner Bud Selig and the owners of the sport's existing teams expect to make a decision about baseball in the Washington area. And, as Orioles owner Peter Angelos makes clear at every opportunity, this will be a historic crossroads moment for his team.

He believes that, if Washington gets a franchise, baseball in Baltimore takes on a new and troubled aura. Instead of remaining a big-market team drawing from the entire state, he believes, the Orioles would become the kind of small-market operation they were years ago, when the team struggled to draw a million people a year.

If that happens, the money that has supported big salaries dries up. If that happens, fan interest already waning over the last several dreary seasons shrivels increasingly.

On the other hand, if the baseball owners buy Angelos' argument - that it makes no sense to damage a healthy existing franchise in order to start up a new one - and keep baseball out of the Washington area, then it becomes a new ballgame for Baltimore.

Those at the highest levels of Orioles management say the club would then get back into the free-agent market in a big-time way. They recall a time when Angelos spent huge money on such names as Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar and Bobby Bonilla. They also say, without that assurance of a Washington team, the notion of spending millions for superstar free agents is an act of economic suicide. This is a cloud that has hovered over Baltimore baseball, and Angelos' wallet, for the past several years.

But it's not how Washington figures the equation. Backers of baseball in D.C. (or in nearby Northern Virginia) claim that a new franchise in their area would have "negligible" impact on the Orioles. Baltimore, they point out, is 45 minutes from the D.C. area.

That kind of geographical description is baloney, and it willfully misses the point: Washington is moments from Montgomery and Prince George's counties, and only slightly farther from Howard County - and the Orioles have consistently drawn one-fourth to one-third of their paying customers from these areas and, just as economically important, their cable television customers.

Need an analogy? There's one as close as the loudest argument now ringing through the State House halls in Annapolis. It's slot machines.

In conversation last week, in fact, Rep. Elijah Cummings brought up that subject. Cummings is no fan of slots - but he understands money. "I went to the three Delaware tracks" with slot machines, Cummings said, "and 85 percent of the cars there had Maryland tags. That's a lot of money getting away from this state."

The 85 percent figure sounds high - but it clearly echoes the baseball argument: Huge dollars that should be staying in Maryland are now going to slot machines in Delaware and West Virginia. Put slots in Maryland, the money stays here; put baseball in the Washington area, the money stays there and no longer flows to Baltimore.

So the Orioles brace themselves. While awaiting the Washington decision, they anticipate another dip in attendance that, in the 1990s, approached 4 million fans a year. This year, 3 million is considered a long shot.

This brings us to Tom "Goose" Kaiser, owner of the Bay Cafe on Boston Street. For years, he brought busloads of people to Orioles opening days, and to Colts and Ravens games. Tomorrow, he said, he'll take only a fraction of the usual gang to opening day. People's minds are elsewhere, he said. They're thinking about the war and the economy. There's very little baseball talk.

"And you know this town," he said. "What's it always been? A football town. The Orioles were a hot ticket when the Colts left town. But now there's football again."

Football competition's one thing. Baseball competition's another. The Orioles can live with football - because they have to, and because they know what it means to Baltimore's pocketbook and its psyche. But baseball just down the road is another story - and its climax arrives this summer, when the ball club's future reaches a 3-and-2 count.

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