As an unproven rookie on the D.C. City Council, Frank Smith (D-Ward 1) had a hunch that this town's hunger for the return of a professional baseball team could be turned into an issue that would showcase his talents and boost his political career.
"I was trying to find a way to distinguish myself among my colleagues and to prove I have some leadership abilities," Smith explained recently. "Baseball is like apple pie and motherhood, and I think people would feel very good about a person who brought baseball back to Washington."
Smith introduced the bill that created the D.C. Baseball Commission last year and persuaded Mayor Marion Barry to appoint him chairman of the group. During the commission's first 14 months, Washington moved from a city seldom mentioned as a candidate for an expansion team to a top contender.
The major league baseball team owners decided in meetings the week of Dec. 9 against setting a timetable for granting expansion franchises, but Smith is undaunted.
"I'm still confident that we are going to get a team," he said.
While Smith may have failed to bring Washington "Baseball in 87" as he had hoped, baseball fever has brought Smith, a 43-year-old former D.C. school board member, more visibility than any legislation he had introduced during his three years on the council. He also has gained a little political clout, which could make a difference if, as expected, he runs for reelection next year.
Although Smith has gained in stature as the city's leading cheerleader for a baseball team, some of his constituents have grumbled that he should have left the baseball issue to the mayor or an at-large council member and concentrated more on the problems of his ward in Northwest Washington.
"This past summer, you couldn't walk up and down this block," said Clara J. McNeary, president of the Central Northwest Citizens Association, who lives in the Shaw area of Ward 1. "Three hundred , maybe four hundred addicts would be out there every night. It was like bees out there, and we didn't get any help from him."
Some ward residents are working to draft Democratic State Committee member Elona Evans-McNeill to challenge Smith. Evans-McNeill said she has the draft movement under consideration.
Smith, a native of Newnan, Ga., was active in the civil rights movement, serving as the Mississippi field director for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee before moving to Washington in 1964. He was a tenant activist and a member of the school board for one term before winning election to the council in 1982.
Smith and his wife Jean, a psychiatrist in private practice, have two children, Maliaka, 14, and Tarik, 12.
Smith says his pursuit of a baseball franchise is important and, if successful, could reap substantial economic benefits for the entire city. The D.C. Department of Finance and Revenue estimates that a franchise, during its first year of operation, would create 750 jobs and pump $61.1 million into the local economy, including $11.7 million in ticket sales and $9 million in concessions. In addition, the city would receive $3.6 million in tax revenue.
Some of Smith's constituents think that the goal justifies Smith's efforts.
"Baseball doesn't have top priority with me, but I understand the ramifications," said John Snipes, who has lived in the ward for 30 years and has operated a neighborhood store for 15 years. "Baseball may not have a direct impact on my business, but there are a lot of kids here who could be attendants on the parking lots or vendors or bat boys."
There is no doubt that Smith has gained politically. Consider that:
*His reputation as a politician who can get things done was enhanced when he persuaded the D.C. government to put up $145,000 to support the baseball commission's efforts. Also at Smith's urging, the council approved in principle the issuance of $13.7 million of general obligation bonds to refurbish RFK Stadium for baseball.
*Smith's activities have placed him in a position to rub elbows with some of the city's most powerful business persons. The two groups competing to own a new team include Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke in one corner and developer Oliver T. Carr and construction giant James Clark in the other.
*Smith, who earlier this year told a reporter he wouldn't recognize most of the city's local bankers if they walked into his office, now at least is well known by bankers. At Smith's insistence, baseball fans have deposited in local banks $8 milliopn pledged to purchase 15,000 season tickets for a nonexistent baseball team.
"Frank has done an excellent job," said Robert Pincus, president of D.C. National Bank and a member of the baseball commission. "He has expended the energies required to make the baseball commission very visible. A year ago we were not mentioned in the top 10 contenders for a team, and now we're in the top three. Frank spearheaded our direction and movement."
Pincus and two other baseball commission members, lawyer Robert Washington and restaurateur Richard Danker, were listed as part of a 20-member committee that sponsored a $400-a-ticket reception for Smith on Dec. 4 that Smith said raised $38,475. During Smith's 1982 council campaign, his campaign receipts totaled $37,816.82, according to D.C. Campaign Finance Office records.
"This city went years without baseball, and no one in the city government thought to do anything," said Steve Porter, legal counsel to the baseball commission. Washington twice before had major league baseball teams, which moved to other cities.
"Everybody was wringing his hands and saying, 'Isn't it terrible that we lost baseball,' " Porter said. "Frank Smith said, 'Let's stop complaining about it.' Everbody knows that Frank Smith can't deliver a baseball team here, but if we do get a team, everybody should know that he organized the latest round of enthusiasm."
But in Ward 1, where the city estimates that 20 percent of the population lives in poverty and where residents say housing, unemployment and crime are the chief problems, some residents argue that the return of baseball would produce few direct benefits for the ward.
"If he can work baseball in with his other activities, fine," said Evelyn Jackson, a member of the mayor's budget resource committee and a community activist. "But he seems to be working more on baseball. The people who will enjoy baseball will be the people from the suburbs. The average black person living in the city, if they paid all the other bills, rent, utilities, is not going to have money to put out for season tickets."
During his three years on the council, Smith introduced 21 bills, including seven related to the baseball commission, according to the council's legislative records.
The only bills introduced by Smith that were adopted and were not related to the commission were a measure establishing advisory neighborhood commission boundaries and another naming a block in Ward 1 "Dance Alley." Smith introduced several ceremonial resolutions and has been a strong supporter of the concept of urban gardening.
Smith has introduced bills dealing with crime, housing and parking problems, but for a variety of reasons they have not been passed.
"Urban gardens and baseball -- that's all he is known for, and the ward is falling apart," said James Mercer, a Ward 1 member of the Democratic State Committee. "I would be afraid to go out of my house to go to the ballpark. I would rather that somebody else carry the ball -- not my council member."housing the number one problem in his ward, said in an interview that it is difficult for a freshman council member to establish a weighty legislative record, particularly without the benefit of a chairmanship of a council committee.
Sensitive to complaints about his baseball activities, Smith said he has made certain that his staff responds quickly to constituent complaints and has sought to persuade skeptics that a baseball team would be an economic plus for the entire city.
"I know for the average person, when they run over a pothole in my district or see a drug addict on the street corner, they say, 'If he weren't spending so much time on baseball, he could do something about it,' " said Smith. "But baseball gives me a chance to do a little educating. When you put a young man off the street and give him a job, we're fighting crime."
Smith has all but announced his plans to run for reelection in 1986. "If this city was granted a baseball team which would happen to coincide with my reelection campaign, it would be some part luck, some part planning," he said