A reader of this column in St. Louis left me a voice-mail message this week that set my head spinning. "I suppose," he said, "now that Washington has a baseball team again, you will keep your promise and endorse President Bush's reelection."
The caller was bringing up an incident I had written about in one of probably a dozen columns in which I was whining about the nation's capital being without the national pastime. Several of those columns listed the inducements I was prepared to offer to anyone who would get us back into the game.
In one such column, I recounted my interview with the then-governor of Texas, George W. Bush, as he began his pursuit of the presidency back in 1999. After inspecting the collection of autographed baseballs he kept in his Austin office, I told him, "I am a single-issue voter. I will support anyone for president who will bring baseball back to Washington."
The moral quandary raised by my caller is this: Now that Major League Baseball has announced that the Montreal Expos will move here next season, am I under obligation to back Bush? For almost 50 years, I have conscientiously refrained from using this journalistic perch to promote any candidate or party. Must I now abandon my neutrality?
Or can I go back on my word, and forget the promise I made voluntarily, without coercion of any sort, to the governor/presidential candidate?
I have consulted the leading ethicists in our newsroom (a rather small number, to be sure) and their judgment is -- to paraphrase a former president -- "It all depends on the meaning of the word 'bring.' "
"Bring" is an action verb. Common usage -- "While you're up, would you bring me a beer?" -- implies motion, exertion, effort.
Did President Bush exert himself to move the Expos south, or was it just coincidence that this happened on his watch? Well, the timing is suspicious. In July the Kerry campaign began making noises about challenging Bush in Virginia, normally a safe Republican state. Two months later, the Expos found a home within easy reach of hundreds of thousands of us baseball-hungry swing voters in Northern Virginia. Who knows what messages passed between Karl Rove and baseball Commissioner Bud Selig?
On the other hand . . . no one in the White House has claimed credit for the president getting the Expos. And you know it's not because he's worried about losing friends in Montreal. Heck, a lot of those people speak French.
And I have reasons to suspect that Bush was less than sympathetic to Washington's plea for baseball. He was, after all, a top executive of the team that calls itself the Texas Rangers but had been christened the Washington Senators before it snuck out of town and changed its name 33 years ago. I never sensed any guilt in him for handling stolen goods.
And now that we have the Expos coming, I feel safe in publishing the rest of the story about that Austin interview. Instead of snapping up my offer, and locking in this column's enormously important support, Gov. Bush gave me a serious lecture about territorial rights, the influence of Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos and what he called the odds against other owners placing a rival team within Angelos's claimed empire. I could not believe his solicitude for trial lawyer Angelos, but I certainly felt my offer had been rebuffed.
On the other hand . . . it is a fact that Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton never brought baseball back to Washington, and neither did Tip O'Neill or Mike Mansfield or George Mitchell or Tom Daschle all those years the Democrats controlled Congress. All they had to do was put the words "baseball" and "antitrust exemption" into the same sentence, and we would have had a team.
No, it was not until Republicans controlled the White House and both the House and Senate that our dream was realized.
I owe the GOP something -- if not a presidential endorsement. So let me be the first to suggest that the name of the relocated team should be the Washington Reagans. Heck, everything else of any size in town already has been named for him -- the airport, the giant downtown office building. And think of the headlines: Reagans Rally to Edge Brewers. Gippers Squash Giants.
I am up for Opening Day -- even if I have to watch that Red Sox-loving John Kerry throw out the first ball.