D.C. baseball? Baltimore has reason to balk

September 24, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

FOR THE past six months, while his Baltimore Orioles played major league baseball, Peter Angelos played for time. He thought Bud Selig was on his side about baseball for Washington. He thought his fellow team owners might sense their own vulnerabilities and sympathize with his plight. He thought everybody in the sport that was once called the national pastime still understood simple arithmetic.

Now Angelos knows better. He has run out of time imagining baseball might come to its senses. As Washingtonians prepare to celebrate the rebirth of big league ball, Angelos wonders how he will keep his Orioles competitive, and Baltimoreans instinctively prepare to nurture every ancient insecurity in our considerable arsenal.

So Washington baseball fans should understand something: In an ideal world, we do not begrudge them a ball club, or their happiness, any more than we begrudge them their national monuments. Go, enjoy, have a swell time.

But not, in the real world, at our expense.

In Milwaukee yesterday, Baseball Commissioner Selig gathered his team owners around him and listened to plans for the Montreal Expos to vanish in a Canadian sunset and reappear in a new locale - perhaps along the shores of the Anacostia River less than a mile south of the U.S. Capitol.

In Baltimore, we shudder at the thought because we know arithmetic, and we've been a troubled part of history. With baseball in Washington, the estimated 25 percent of Oriole Park attendance from the D.C. suburbs figures to drop drastically. The value of broadcast rights, likewise. Goodbye to all that, goodbye and goodbye. For a ball club competing with mighty New York, with its preposterous payroll ceiling, and Boston, with its fan base stretching across all of New England, baseball just down the highway from Baltimore is a body blow.

To Baltimore, and to baseball.

We are a city that has flirted with disaster before this, and sometimes survived, and sometimes not. We still remember the Mayflower moving vans in the middle of the night, and the Baltimore Colts, who helped create the modern pro football era, being snatched away.

We still remember a Washingtonian named Edward Bennett Williams buying the Orioles and then saying he wouldn't move the team if there was adequate support. What did "adequate" mean? Williams refused to say. But we discovered that, even as he was offering vague assurance he would keep the Orioles here, Williams was simultaneously scouting locations in Washington.

But he never moved the team - and for good reason. The Orioles are one of baseball's cornerstone franchises. At Memorial Stadium, they won pennant after pennant. In the good years at Camden Yards, they've approached 4 million spectators a year. In the bad years, they've approached 3 million.

Washington, meanwhile, has gone without baseball for a third of a century. It lost two teams, entirely on merit. Not only were they perennial dogs, they played in front of empty houses. (In all the years Washington and Baltimore played baseball side by side, Washington's yearly attendance did not once match Baltimore's. You could look it up.) Nobody's saying that will be the case now. The D.C. area's population has exploded, in numbers and in money.

But will it be enough to sustain baseball there and, simultaneously, let it continue to flourish here?

For Baltimore, it brings us back to our old municipal insecurities. We are a city that built a renewed, vital downtown out of an area that once seemed beyond redemption. This city is famous for its neighborhoods, but we also like the larger community mix that basks in the extended nighttime glow of the ballpark.

We still remember a nervous era when the Orioles were life-and-death to draw 1 million people a year. And we know that baseball, as a sport and as a business, tiptoes through precarious times. It's a game with studied 19th-century rhythms in a frenzied 21st century. It depends on loyalties. Loyalties to the Baltimore Orioles now threaten to drop like stock market offerings.

Say what you will about Angelos, he came to Baltimore's rescue in the aftermath of Williams' threats and Eli Jacobs' financial troubles, when we worried that the Orioles might yet go the way of the Colts (and, for that matter, the old NBA Bullets). Angelos, the local guy with deep pockets, seemed to guarantee their continued presence in Baltimore.

Now, all of that seems newly precarious. We don't begrudge Washington its joy. But we don't like it when it threatens ours. As Ernest L. Thayer didn't quite write in his classic "Casey at the Bat":

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright,

The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;

And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,

But there is no joy in Baltimore

Major league baseball has struck out.

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