In Washington

The powerful savor the possibilities

D.c. Roots For A Home Team

September 24, 2004|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Calvin Johnson got an e-mail from a partner in his lobbying firm yesterday suggesting that they buy season tickets for the city's new baseball team. The message included a prospective schedule so Johnson could reserve some games for client outings.

But, Mr. Johnson, the capital doesn't actually have a team right now.

No matter, the baseball fan insists, it's coming. Johnson, well practiced in counting votes on Capitol Hill, has studied his baseball politics and feels so confident that the city will finally get a franchise that he's already planning what he'll do when it does. He can see himself now, in the stands, enjoying the kind of Washington venue where two things are possible:

"Watching baseball," he says, "and networking."

Inside the Palm, a restaurant filled with the smell of steaks and K Street success in downtown D.C., talk among the city's lawyers, lobbyists and public relations people kept swinging away from campaign gossip and back to baseball. Even nonfans had scoured the sports pages so that they could sound credible on stadium deals and relocation meetings.

Cheap seats, face time

Though many declare themselves real fans, they acknowledge that a new stadium would be great for treating lawmakers and their staffers to cheap seats and face time.

"Baseball is just made for the way Washington society works," says Johnson, a lobbyist at McDermott, Will and Emery, between sips of his lunchtime vodka, straight up. He envisions members of Congress attending fund-raisers at the new ballpark, 50 or 60 people gathering there, nobody worried about missing half the game while stuck in Beltway traffic.

The whole thing could fall through, of course, as it has in the past. Washington, which hasn't had a team since the Senators left town 33 years ago, has celebrated its virtual lock on a new franchise several times before, only to be disappointed when the deals evaporated.

In the interim, the Orioles have turned some of these Washingtonians into true fans. But based on an informal survey at the Palm, much of that loyalty could be easily transferred to a D.C. franchise - specifically, the Montreal Expos, the team expected to move.

Over the lunch-hour bustle, a heavy knife poised over his steak, Keith Heard considers Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, who has vowed to fight any effort to send the Expos here. He thinks about what will happen if the city doesn't get a team after coming so close.

"I think," he concludes, "Mr. Angelos will be the most-wanted man in Washington."

Heard, who has not gone up to Camden Yards in years, says he lost much of his enthusiasm for baseball after the 1994-1995 strike. But a stadium that's just a quick cab ride from the Capitol? The lobbyist on trade and agricultural issues sees plenty of potential there.

"I'd throw it out the window," he says of his baseball grudge, "if Washington got a team."

Around the Palm, folks joked about rooting for the "Washington Expos" and predicted that they'd become regulars at a D.C. ballpark. Mike Maher, an account manager with Professional Products Inc., could imagine doing the informal business that boardrooms won't allow.

"Our company has a box with the Redskins, and I'm sure we'd do the same with the new baseball team," he says. "It's something you can use for quality time with your clients."

View from cheap seats

Before the deal is even done, some critics say, the stadium is catering too much to well-connected fans and not enough to the Washingtonians who'd fill the cheaper seats.

Scott Armstrong, a baseball enthusiast and well-connected Washington author who was the driving force behind the Orioles game with a Cuban all-star team five years ago, said he has repeatedly urged district officials to make sure the stadium becomes a part of the community, not just an after-work playground for powerbrokers. While he says district officials have called for his advice about community involvement, they have not acted on it.

"Everybody's talking about, `How many subway stops will there be for the $250,000-a-year lawyer-lobbyist to get from his office at 5:45 so he can be there for batting practice,' or, `Will there be parking for the lawyer who has to drive to his house in Great Falls,'" says Armstrong. "That's fine, and that fills a lot of expensive seats, but that's not what baseball's about. So far, there's no sense of using this as an organizing tool or a civic mission."

The city argues that it's just too soon to start planning neighborhood outreach for Little Leaguers and public school children when they don't even know if the Expos are coming. But, they note, the city proposed the stadium for an area of southeast Washington along the Anacostia River in part to help revive that economically strapped neighborhood. Until a new ballpark opens, the team would play at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.

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