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Shirley Povich Tribute

  Baseball: Here Today and Gone Tomorrow

By Shirley Povich
Washington Post Columnist
Saturday, April 7, 1990; Page A01

It's here, Washington's full-blown, one-day baseball season.

Today Manager Whitey Herzog is bringing in his St. Louis Cardinals to play the Baltimore Orioles at RFK Stadium. And that will be it. Today and no more. A dollop, a patch and the season is done, concluded, for Washington fans yearning to join the real baseball world, aching for a team to call their own.

It's mortifying, Washington cast as a pit stop for big league teams headed home for the more important business of the 1990 season openers. It is rem-iniscent of another era when teams barnstorming north from spring training put in at such metropolises as Cordele, Ga., and Greenville, S.C., and Knoxville, Tenn., to flaunt their skills as a treat for the local yokelry.

What a sorry role for the nation's capital, sometimes called the Capital of the World. Washington, D.C., is no dot on a road map. For 71 years it was a valued member of the major league scene, and, yes, a founding city of the American League, winner of three pennants and a World Series. Today, reduced to a craving supplicant, asking to be favored with an expansion franchise, waiting on the roll of the dice sometime within the next year. Hoping.

For 19 wretched years Washington has been excluded, left to press its nose against the window while 14 other cities, rated as bush league towns when Washington was in the majors, have been endowed with franchises. What insolence, what outrage to be passed over for the likes of Arlington, Tex., Anaheim, Calif., icy Minneapolis and two cities in Canada. It rates with flag burning.

Washington is being told by some of the major league apologists that the Orioles are also "our" team. That's not what their uniforms say. They must think we're illiterates. And that nightly 80-mile round trip to Baltimore does not suggest Washington fans have just returned from seeing the "home" team play. The Orioles subsist on the estimated 25 percent of their attendance from the D.C. area, a statistic that, alone, should validate Washington as a baseball town. Consider the attendance figures in Washington if it had a team to take to its own bosom, to nurture, to whoop for.

It is incomprehensible that Washington now is reported to be running behind such glorified burgs as St. Petersburg-Tampa, Buffalo and Denver, all of which have been making louder noises than this city's somnambulant baseball commission and getting more attention with their more aggressive tactics.

While the D.C. Baseball Commission has been missing the point on how to sell an area to baseball's expansion committee, other cities have been making all-out assaults in bidding for the favor of new franchises. Buffalo has even hired Washington's most prestigious and expensive public relations firm to plead its case. That's playing hardball.

Washington lost its team to Minneapolis in 1961 because Minneapolis's chamber of commerce secretary for three years played a tune to team owner Calvin Griffith until finally seducing him with the promise of guaranteed attendance. And in 1971, Washington's expansion franchise was lured to Arlington, Tex., by that town's persevering mayor, who enticed the money-grubbing Bob Short with an up-front $8 million for the TV rights for a period of years. In contrast, the D.C. Baseball Commission is bereft of self-starters, hasn't had a bright idea in years and has been a synonym for mildew.

The shame is that Washington is vastly better qualified for an expansion team than any of the other bidding cities. In population and recession-proof income it surpasses all of them; it stands alone in the matter of basic fandom; in the important matter of TV markets it dwarfs all the others. It offers the only stadium (54,000 seats) with a burnished new subway running into its very mouth and parking lots that are a league-wide envy. Never has a city been so invitingly ripe for a team.

Washington's value as a franchise city has been unpardonably unappreciated by the major leagues. Where else in the world is it a given that the president of the United States will make the first, ceremonial pitch honoring the game and validating baseball as the national pastime? In Washington it is recognized as a command performance by the White House. Contrast this pageantry with a remembered opening day at Yankee Stadium when the personage delegated to make the opening pitch of the season was that high muckety-muck, the city's assistant commissioner of sanitation.

The president does not throw out the first Stillson wrench at the plumbers' convention or hand out any of the Oscars at the Academy Awards, or toss out the first ball at the Super Bowl or NCAA basketball final. Only to baseball, and only in Washington is the White House seal of approval granted. Lobbyists for every other industry would salivate for that type of patronage.

But with the last out this afternoon, the 1990 season will be over in Washington. There will be no echo, no tomorrow for Washington fans. For them, once more it will be the equivalent of being told by the major leagues, "Have a nice day," and with the same ring of dubious sincerity that usually accompanies that irksome expression. Translated, it stands once more as the brushoff. One could weep.

Shirley Povich has been covering sports for The Washington Post since 1924.

© Copyright 1990 The Washington Post Company

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