Baseball will return with the cherry blossoms to the nation's capital next spring when the Montreal Expos become Washington's fourth major league franchise and its first since the Washington Senators packed up and moved to Texas in 1971.
Baseball commissioner Bud Selig made it official a few minutes after 4 p.m. yesterday in a call to D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams and a crowd of edgy council members and city sports officials gathered in city hall.
Former D.C. baseball announcer Charlie Brotman, center, leads a chorus of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" with Mark Touhey, left, chairman of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Council, Mayor Anthony A. Williams and D.C. Council members Jack Evans and Linda Cropp.
(Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)
"Congratulations. It's been a long time coming," Selig said when he came on the line.
Those seven words brought great relief to Williams (D), who, despite assurances from baseball officials, said he worried all day that the call would not come.
"I was always looking for wood paneling, wood tables -- something to knock on," said the mayor as he emerged from the meeting wearing a bright-red Senators cap. "I'm elated. . . . Relieved. Satisfied. We put a lot of time into this, and it finally paid off."
The Expos are scheduled to play their first home game at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in April, providing the D.C. Council approves a $440 million financing package to build a new ballpark on the Anacostia waterfront less than a mile south of the U.S. Capitol. Yesterday, Williams said that a majority of the council is on board and that he has no doubt that the package will be approved by year's end.
Major League Baseball, which owns the Expos, must take a formal vote on the deal at a meeting scheduled for November. Baseball plans an auction to choose the team's new owners, who are expected to pick a new name.
Williams said yesterday that he will lobby baseball to sell the team to the Washington Baseball Club, a group of hometown investors who have underwritten the city's baseball quest. For his part, Williams said he prefers the name "The Grays" -- an homage to the Negro League franchise that played in Washington for years.
Reaction was quick and joyful. During a campaign stop in Minnesota, even Vice President Cheney said he's looking forward to Washington becoming a "ball town again."
"I think this will be a great boon to the community," Cheney said. "It will force a lot of us to reorient our loyalties. We've all picked up, acquired, become fans of other teams."
Jim Hannan, 65, who pitched for the Senators from 1962 to 1970, was delighted. "This is like coming off the disabled list after 33 years and somebody came up and said, 'Today, you are activated, Jim. You are playing in the World Series.' "
On Opening Day, the Expos will find a very different town from the one baseball abandoned 33 years ago today, when the Senators played their final innings at RFK. Then, Richard M. Nixon was president. The Vietnam War dominated the news. And the nation's capital was rapidly losing its middle class in the wake of the 1968 riots.
In that environment, the owner of the Senators, the late Robert Short, said baseball could not survive. "The only fans at Washington Senators games were the politicians and the pickpockets, and you couldn't tell the difference," said Short's son, Brian, a Minneapolis businessman.
Today, Washington lies at the heart of the nation's fifth-largest metropolitan area, which has more than 5 million residents. It is one of the most highly educated and affluent areas in the country and includes counties whose average household incomes are among the highest in the nation. The city boasts a newly revived urban core, $27 billion in development projects and one of the hottest real estate markets in the nation.