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Marc Fisher

Baseball Just Whitewashes Mayor's Image

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, September 30, 2004; Page B01

Larry Parks and Robert Aiken grew up in Washington and have glowing memories of going to Senators games with their dads.

Parks is a senior vice president of the Federal Home Loan Bank. Aiken is a homeless man who beds down each night at the Catholic Charities shelter a couple of blocks from the proposed site of a ballpark for Our Expos.

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Both men are thrilled about the end of our baseball exile. Both want a home team to root for again. Yet both believe that Mayor Anthony Williams's campaign for the Expos always had someone else's interests in mind.

"This deal appears once again to be the elites dictating how the city develops," says Parks, who served on Williams's transition team in 1998. "A few hundred free seats for kids? That is just insulting. The way you invite the whole city into this deal is to guarantee jobs to people in the neighborhood and set aside significant work on the stadium for minority contractors. Then you work on engaging a new urban generation in baseball," with coaching clinics and school athletics.

"Mayor Anthony? He's not for people who need some help," says Aiken, who sells newspapers at Half and I streets SW, just behind a ballfield and bleachers where nine men sit drinking from beer bottles in paper bags. "Marion Barry had jobs for everybody. Mayor Williams is for the rich."

The city plans to sell the former Randall Elementary School -- which now serves as the shelter where Aiken has slept since he lost his apartment two years ago -- to the Corcoran Museum's art school. Aiken, 48, says he has no idea where he will go if that happens.

In all too much of this city, Williams is viewed as an evangelist for the rich and the white, as an elitist who has little but disdain for the poor and the black. Unfortunately, the return of baseball -- which should be a moment of joy for all -- only cements that image of the mayor.

Before yesterday's announcement that our long regional nightmare is over, I visited some of this city's empty, forlorn baseball fields, where you'll find far more dog waste and condoms than children tossing around a ball.

It is not too strong to say that in most of Washington, baseball is a chapter from a history book. Kids don't know the players; they hardly even know the basic rules of the game.

Baseball's challenge is to change that, to connect with black city kids who never became fans of the sport, in part because their parents perceive it as a white man's game.

The mayor's challenge is to use baseball to overcome his greatest failure -- his inability to persuade the average Washingtonian that he gives a hoot about any neighborhood that's not attracting the well-to-do to the District.

Let's be blunt. Much as fans like me consider the return of baseball a subject for romantic revelry, the sport's flight from and return to this city is also a sensitive and painful story of race.

"The Senators left because of race," says Parks, who is black and still feels the hurt of the 1971 departure of the franchise for a suburb outside Dallas.

The first Senators moved in 1961 in good part because the owner wanted a whiter fan base. After the riots of 1968, white flight from Washington accelerated into abandonment -- people sold their houses, closed their stores, moved their businesses.

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