As we sort out the minor details, such as who will own the team, what the name will be, and how much money will have to be paid to the big whiner in Baltimore, let us pause to ask the deeper philosophical question:
Is Washington really a baseball town?
Chicago is a baseball town. Boston is a baseball town. St. Louis is a baseball town.
Five years from now, when the novelty of a new team and a new stadium has worn off, when the lobbyists are bored with their box seats, when the Washington Partisans have (and we are just noodling with the worst-case scenario) an unchallenged incumbency in last place, how many fans will still have baseball fever?
Baseball promoters in Washington give a standard answer: Washington can be a great baseball town, but a winning ball club will make it a lot easier.
"Everybody loves a winner, and they want to be associated with it, psychologically," said Charlie Brotman, the former public address announcer for the Washington Senators and the master of ceremonies at yesterday's announcement that baseball has come back to Washington.
"After the third year they're going to have to start playing at least .500 ball," he said. "Washington is definitely a good baseball town, a good sports town. But when you win, it's the best sports town."
Columnist and baseball fanatic George Will echoes this point.
"Washington, having the highest concentration of ambition pound for pound and square foot on the planet, and therefore the highest ratio of impatience to serenity, is a town that likes winners," he said. Baseball, he noted, involves a lot of losing. Superior hitters still fail about 70 percent of the time. "In baseball the best team in the league is going to walk off with a loss about 60 times a year."
Thus Washington may have to overcome its natural disdain for anything that smacks of failure. Historically, the city has not had a lot of lovable losers. Whoever loses the presidential race in November will never eat lunch in this town again.
Football is the exception. No franchise in the National Football League is as valuable as the Redskins, and for Monday night's game they lured more than 90,000 people to the logistical nightmare of FedEx Field. By contrast, the Wizards, nee Bullets, have had trouble filling the seats over the years in part because of an astonishing run of mediocrity.
One explanation is the big-event theory. Brotman said that Washingtonians are "sophisticated" about events and want to be at the big show, the prizefight, the prime-time football game. The Redskins have only eight home games. But a professional basketball team has 41 home games, and baseball is an everyday sport for half the year, with 81 home games.
That's a lot of tickets to sell. But William Hanbury, president of the Washington, D.C., Convention and Tourism Corp., radiated confidence at the announcement at the City Museum yesterday as he listened to city leaders congratulate themselves for getting a team.
One of the secrets to the team's success, he said, will be tourists. Right now they come to the capital, tour the monuments, memorials and museums, and then, as the sun goes down, try to figure out what to do. There haven't been enough nighttime activities for families, he said.
"We just solved that," he said.
He stood in the overpacked central hall of the museum, where the names of great thinkers are chiseled into the marble -- among them, as it happens, Homer. The stage was as crowded as everywhere else in the room, and it took Mayor Anthony Williams a full 10 minutes to run through the list of everyone who needed to be thanked for their triumphant work. Williams is not a natural cheerleader and, despite the obligatory sound bites for the camera ("Baseball is back in Washington, D.C.!") he might well have been announcing a major new construction project, perhaps another convention center.
The presence of a couple of former Senators helped remind the people that this was about baseball. But of course it's about more than that. Revitalization of the Anacostia waterfront is a major part of the city's plans. The city expects the team to play three years at RFK Stadium and then move to a new, 41,000-seat ballpark off South Capitol Street near the Anacostia River. Hanbury says that baseball will bring an additional $31 million in revenue to the city annually. But he also says the city will need to build a fan base.
"We're going to need to build knowledge about baseball," he said.
Everyone must now bone up on the infield fly rule.
The sport of baseball, the skeptic must note, is rather serene by the visceral standards of contemporary entertainment. There are moments when the only movement on the field is the pitcher almost imperceptibly shaking his head at the catcher to decline the suggestion of throwing a curveball. There are moments when the pitcher will make such a desultory pick-off move toward first base that time itself will threaten to come to a standstill.
Washington, by contrast, is a city in a rush. Some fans will spend the entire game pounding out e-mails on their BlackBerries.
"Part of baseball's strength is that it's a game of episodes, not of constant flow," said Will. "The bad news is that it lets the workaholics slip the leash."
True baseball fans, like Aviva Kempner, will pay attention to the game. Kempner is the director of the documentary "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg," which she dedicated to the return of baseball to Washington. Yesterday, she sounded like someone who had homered in the bottom of the ninth.
"I'm in heaven. Can you believe this? Culturally deprived for 33 years. No more schlepping to Baltimore!" she said.
She doesn't like the violence in football. Baseball, she notes with a laugh, has more appeal for women.
"There's nothing like seeing a major-league baseball player in the current uniform. A lot of us women have crushes on baseball players. . . . They're nice, uh, well, a lot of the players wear them very tight. Leave the rest to your imagination."
Strange how that never makes it into the Sports section.
For most cities, landing a baseball team after years of effort represents a great civic triumph, a mark of authenticity, something that identifies the community as a formidable American metropolis. Think Phoenix. Think Seattle. Think Tampa Bay. Think, for that matter, of Montreal.
But Washington is not a city that needed anyone to pat it on the head and say, "You're all grown up, now." It started to get over its inferiority complex in the 1870s, when Boss Shepherd decided that sewer lines and paving would be appropriate. Two world wars and the Depression boosted the power of the federal government, and now there's tech money in the mix, and about 6 million people when you count the suburbs. The city is overrun with politicians, diplomats, media big shots, millionaire lobbyists and various other would-be masters of the universe. It's not like the city needed a team to boost its ego.
"We're not like Milwaukee or Kansas City that desperately need their franchises to stamp them as big-league cities," said Hanbury.
It's something of a mystery that baseball stayed away so long. The Orioles and their dyspeptic owner, Peter Angelos, didn't help matters, nor did the fussiness of baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and the other members of the cartel known as Major League Baseball. But it's also a matter of record that when the city had a team it often didn't have many fannies in the seats.
Brotman remembers those days. The problem wasn't the fans, it was the team, he says.
"In the past, Washington has had, unfortunately, a less than terrific baseball team," he says. Things got so bad that as the 1964 season approached, Brotman suggested a slogan that would honestly and directly address the team's firm grip on last place: Off the Floor in '64. Management loved it.
In the later years of the Senators, the team would get a full house on opening day as Brotman introduced the president of the United States to throw out the first pitch. But the second day, he said, hardly anyone would show up.
But Brotman and Hanbury said yesterday that the city has changed so dramatically, demographically, that history won't repeat itself. The suburbs have boomed since the 1960s, and the Washington metropolitan area now ranks near the top of a list of the most affluent communities in America.
"We have twice the number of people in the region today as we did 30 years ago. A much more affluent constituency now. And right now, Washington, D.C., has the strongest economy in the country," Hanbury said.
The buzz is that baseball needed Washington more than Washington needed baseball. The nation's capital not only has lots of people and boodles of money, but by placing a team here, Major League Baseball can try to reclaim the lost fan base among African Americans.
"Kids in the inner city are not playing baseball right now, as a whole," said Brendan Sullivan, co-director of Head First Baseball, a company that runs baseball clinics for youngsters. "The reality is, if you go down into parts of the inner city, we'll run a clinic and ask kids, name a Baltimore Oriole, and a lot of times no one in the group can name a single one."
But that's now. Spring training is only five months away. On opening day this may not only feel like a baseball town, but feel like a great baseball town. It'll be a hot date for singles, and dads will think they're heroes for taking their kids to the ballpark. And as the game goes into the bottom of the seventh inning, everyone in the stadium will stand and lustily sing, "Take me out to the ballgame."
They actually sang it yesterday at the big announcement. Brotman led the way, belting it out with gusto, swaying on stage. But most of the people in the place didn't appear to know the words.