D.C. baseball poses threat to Orioles -- and to city

July 20, 2004|By Michael Olesker

ON SUNDAY, with their tail feathers between their legs, the hapless Baltimore Orioles fled the home ballpark of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, which has all the charm of a suburban shopping mall, and traveled to Kansas City, where the stadium is located on the side of a highway. These facts are important to Peter Angelos, and to Baltimore, but maybe not to Major League Baseball.

While Angelos holds his breath, Washington tries not to hyperventilate. The D.C. area anticipates embracing a new major-league baseball team, currently called the Montreal Expos, and expects an announcement by mid-August. Of course, they were also anticipating it over last week's All Star break. And, precisely a year ago at the All Star break, they were also expecting it. They are a community perpetually sitting by the phone waiting for a New Year's date who never quite arrives.

But Angelos waits by his own telephone.

"I'm waiting for Selig's call," the Orioles owner was saying the other day. "Once he knows, I expect he'll call me. Until then, I'm just staying away from it."

Selig is baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who must decide where to transplant the Expos, who have reached their Canadian sunset and must find a new home. Several cities want them, but the Washington area has an existing ballpark - the outdated Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, last used for baseball during the first Nixon administration - where games could be played while a modern ballpark is constructed.

Exactly where it might be constructed is a source of much debate by Washingtonians who believe the Expos' arrival is now all but inevitable. Will it be the Maryland suburbs, or Virginia's? The debate troubles Angelos because he knows how to count. It troubles Baltimore because many of us have memories.

We remember championship summers when the 33rd Street Orioles struggled to draw 1 million people. At Camden Yards, they have topped 3 million. And that's only the ballpark figure. We are not a community like Kansas City, with a ballpark on the side of a highway, or Tampa Bay, whose team actually plays in St. Petersburg but can't draw crowds from either place. The Orioles are not a team that turned its back on the city that nurtured it and built some charmless cookie-cutter monstrosity with artificial turf in a distant suburb.

This ballclub has contributed enormously to the transformation of downtown. Leave the ballpark and walk along nearby streets, alive with restaurants and pubs and outdoor cafes, and young people who have discovered surrounding neighborhoods and learned to call them home. The good cheer is irresistible - and, for those of a certain generation, it feels like pulling aside the blackout curtains after a bombing.

Many of us remember downtown Baltimore when it was utterly deserted after dark, when the city suffered from its famous inferiority complex and the sound of nearby footsteps out of the nighttime silence thumped like heart attacks. So any threat to the Orioles carries psychological baggage beyond baseball games.

By almost every poll done over the years, the Orioles draw 20 percent to 25 percent of their fans from the D.C. area. That's more than half a million people a year. Locate a competing team in the Maryland suburbs, and that number plummets. Locate it in the Virginia suburbs, the impact might be lower - but still damaging.

In either case, ballpark attendance (and the surrounding fallout) is only part of it. There's also broadcast money. How would the Orioles make up lost revenues from D.C. area radio and TV outlets that would inevitably invest their dollars in a local team? And with the loss of that revenue, how would the Orioles hope to compete with the wealthy Yankees, with their vast broadcast rights supporting a huge payroll, and the Red Sox, collecting TV and radio money from across New England?

As Angelos sees it, they couldn't - and neither could a Washington team.

"It's the wrong thing for both of us," he was saying now. "We'd both starve to death. Put a team in Washington, and you make two mediocre teams incapable of competing in today's market place. Right now, we're trying to compete with the Yankees and a $180 million payroll. It's tough enough without a team in Washington.

"They talk about having baseball in the nation's capital. I tell you what, you give me all their monuments, and they can have the Orioles. They need baseball to generate excitement in Washington? Come on. They get baseball, and it'd be very negative - for the Orioles, and for Baltimore."

So it's Angelos sitting by the phone, and Washington fans, too, while baseball makes up its mind. But the impact goes beyond Oriole Park. At its best, baseball does not stick itself on the side of some suburban highway. It is part of a community. And this community remembers a glum downtown after dark, and does not wish to see any semblance of it again.

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