Few cry foul over idea of D.C. ball

Sports: The Orioles don't get the loyalty they once commanded. Even the City Council couldn't muster a vote of support.

September 29, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Baltimore was down in the ninth, so Kenneth N. Harris Sr. stepped up to the plate, hoping to hit one out of the park.

But the City Councilman only got to first base with a bill meant to protect the city's economy by declaring opposition to baseball in Washington. Harris couldn't even rally enough support on the council to bring his largely symbolic resolution to a vote.

"We root for the home team, right?" Harris said yesterday, still puzzling over his loss at Monday's council meeting. "I've got to look out for my city. And in this case, having a team in Washington, D.C., will have a negative impact on the economic condition of the city of Baltimore."

As the region awaits official confirmation of the Montreal Expos' move to the Orioles' back yard, and the head of the state's stadium authority predicts fans and money will be siphoned off from publicly financed Oriole Park, few politicians, business leaders and fans are going to bat for Baltimore's team.

That's because protecting the local sports franchise is no longer a reliable political reflex, say people who follow politics and sports.

"It's pure apathy, that's all," said "Wild" Bill Hagy, a retired cabdriver from Arbutus who led cheers from the upper deck of Memorial Stadium in the 1970s and 1980s and still attends about 20 games a year.

Hagy hasn't had much to say about the move -- though he is opposed -- in part because he figures it's a done deal. Same goes for the fans he chats up at Camden Yards.

"I don't hear much about it," Hagy said. "They're gonna put a baseball team over there whether we like it or not. They're gonna do what they're gonna do. Ain't much I can do about it."

Phones are hardly ringing off the hook at City Hall or in the Annapolis offices of city lawmakers. Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden and Del. Salima Siler Marriott said they haven't heard a peep about it.

"I don't think this is on the radar screen of my constituents," Marriott said.

The team could have counted on more support, observers say, in the days before baseball was big business and the public ponied up for stadiums. Before Baltimore's mayor had his eye on the governor's mansion -- and the vote-rich D.C. suburbs, where a Washington ballpark is coveted. Before the Orioles spent years out of pennant contention.

"The performance of the Orioles is one of the dynamics," said Lenneal J. Henderson, a professor at the University of Baltimore's School of Public Affairs who was a minor-league pitcher in the 1960s.

To be sure, there are people besides Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos who are worked up about having a franchise transplanted just 44 miles from Camden Yards.

But the biggest outcry from them did not follow news of the potential move, but a comment from Mayor Martin O'Malley this summer that he was not opposed to a team in Washington.

O'Malley said at the time that the Orioles could count on fan support if the team produced a "good product." He also said it would be unfair for Baltimore to try to block a Washington franchise, as the Washington Redskins tried to keep Charm City from getting a football team.

The mayor's critics -- state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer chief among them -- said that stance was all about O'Malley's long-running feud with Angelos and the mayor's gubernatorial ambitions. O'Malley would like to unseat Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in 2006, and his likely rival for the Democratic nomination is Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who supports a Washington team.

But O'Malley has plenty of company, even Schaefer concedes. "Hepped up" about he threat of a neighboring franchise, the former governor and Baltimore mayor is outraged by what he sees as lack of outrage from city business leaders.

"I've never known the business community to back off on something like this. It just makes me ill," Schaefer said. "They haven't spoken out. They're afraid to offend the businesses in another county."

Gene Bracken, a spokesman for the Greater Baltimore Committee, noted that the business group opposed giving a franchise to the nation's capital in a June op-ed piece in The Sun. The move would cut attendance at Orioles games by up to 20 percent and cost the team media revenue, the op-ed said.

"We have spoken out against putting a major-league baseball team in Washington," he said.

The team's economic benefit to the Baltimore region -- everything from fans spending at area restaurants and hotels to income tax paid by players -- is $225 million a year, according to Harris' ill-fated council bill.

But that argument failed to sway the 19-member council, which agreed to add Harris' proposed resolution to the meeting agenda but never brought the matter to a vote.

Those opposed questioned whether the city makes any money off the Orioles. They recalled how the team, after getting the public to build its ballpark, turned down the council's request that it donate $1 a seat to the city's Recreation and Parks Department.

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