The Washington Expos

September 30, 2004

IT'S OFFICIAL: The Montreal Expos are headed to the nation's capital. The announcement yesterday by Major League Baseball means that Washington is back in the major leagues as of today, almost precisely 33 years after the Senators' final home game. It's an exciting moment for D.C.-area baseball fans but an oddly melancholy one for those 40 miles to the north. It means that the Baltimore Orioles - a team that has brought together two cities made proximate by precious little other than geography - have forever lost a bit of stature and quite possibly an important competitive advantage.

The good news is that professional baseball has its checkbook in hand. To mollify Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, his fellow owners could end up approving an unprecedented compensation package. It's still being negotiated but reportedly makes some specific guarantees for the team's bottom line, ensuring that Orioles revenue will not significantly diminish, nor will the potential profit if the team is ever sold. Further, it gives the team a large stake in a new and lucrative regional cable television network serving both teams.

These provisions could go a long way to keeping the Orioles competitive. Baseball doesn't operate on a level playing field, at least not financially. The deep-pocketed teams such as the New York Yankees have more money to spend on free agents, not only to sign them but to eat those multimillion-dollar salaries when players don't work out. Money is no guarantee of success (sadly, the Orioles have proved that point in recent years), but it sure doesn't hurt, either.

Thanks to the compensation package, the effects on the Orioles probably won't be dramatic. The team claims that the Washington area generates a quarter of its home attendance, but it's not a zero-sum game. There are baseball fans who could fill those seats if they become available. And not just from Baltimore. No doubt some are Washington-area residents who can't bring themselves to discard their ties to the Orioles. Or their T-shirts and caps, for that matter.

But how much will Baltimore and taxpayers lose? That's another matter. The compensation package won't restore any losses to Inner Harbor businesses. Now that they have their own baseball team, will Washingtonians bother to visit downtown Baltimore at all? For taxpayers, the outlook is uncertain. If attendance declines, the Maryland Stadium Authority could lose substantial revenue, leaving the state lottery to make up the difference in operating expenses.

With the soon-to-be-named baseball team in Washington, it's now Mr. Angelos who finds himself at bat. More than ever, the Orioles need to produce a winning team next season and show they can contend for the American League pennant. This year's third-place finish in the East Division is an improvement, but the team has plenty of holes to fill. Unless negotiations collapse, team officials can approach the off-season confident the team will have the money to sign new talent. Baseball looked out for the Orioles; now it's time for the Orioles to prove their worth to fans.

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