This will be the Expos' final season in Montreal.

-- Montreal Gazette, 1997

Now, barring a miracle, the Expos are playing their final season in Montreal.

-- Montreal Gazette, 2000

And so on, summer after summer, month after month, the lords of baseball always promising a decision on the future of the sport's orphan team. In this tiresome soap opera, baseball has used a move to Washington -- city or suburbs -- the way bad teachers threaten to note your behavior on your permanent record.

At this point, no one here will believe baseball is coming until we hear the crack of the bat.

But all signs are that it is. Yesterday's meetings between District officials and baseball's relocation committee were no longer about broad outlines but about specific words in a memorandum of understanding that could be announced as soon as next week.

Baseball seems finally to realize that time is running out. But did baseball wait too long? Tuesday's D.C. primary was not a referendum on baseball, but it can be seen as a popular revolt against the arrogant assumption that a troubled city must shell out a fortune for a ballpark that should be built by the zillionaires who own the team.

The three men who beat incumbent council members are dead set against spending public money on a stadium. When Marion Barry, Kwame Brown and Vincent Gray join the council in January -- they face only token opposition in November -- the majority in favor of baseball will be history. (Though it's worth recalling that in 1979, then-Mayor Barry was a big baseball booster, selling then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn hard on the District.)

If Commissioner Bud Selig moves right now, he will still have a sympathetic council as a partner. And Washington offers something no other city on the continent can provide: the largest, richest, best-educated market without baseball. This is the home of the NFL's biggest money machine, five pro teams, numerous successful college sports programs and a burgeoning cultural establishment.

Those pushing for a baseball franchise here believe they have convinced Selig and his staff that the main barrier to granting Washington a team, Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, has no leg to stand on. Whatever Washington area support the O's have enjoyed is dissipating of its own accord. With every year, getting to Baltimore for a night game becomes more of a nightmare.

Competition is good for baseball franchises; almost every year, the eight teams that share markets are among the strongest in the sport, both financially and on the field.

Washington is not Baltimore. No one argues that the two cities should share colleges, museums, orchestras, theater companies or football teams. Why should baseball be the exception?

Angelos won't just go away. But those working on drawing the Expos here say talks with the Orioles owner about an indemnity payment and a deal for a regional cable TV sports channel are at an advanced stage.

So if Selig decides to put the interests of baseball ahead of the interests of one disgruntled owner, what obstacles remain before the president throws out the first ball on Opening Day at RFK?

Local elected officials have done a poor job of selling the idea to a properly skeptical public. Mayor Anthony Williams has long preached expanding downtown to build up the city's thin tax base, the only hope for gaining the ability to care for the city's most dependent residents. This week's vote showed that he has failed to convince many who live in crime-plagued areas saddled with disgraceful schools.

Using public money to build stadiums can pay off when cities use ballparks as a catalyst to create entertainment, retail and residential areas that expand their tax bases. Washington has a couple of sites where that could happen.

Virginia blew its chances when Arlington political leaders scotched a stadium in Pentagon City. Left with a flimsy plan for a ballpark on Loudoun County's eastern edge, state leaders lost enthusiasm for backing stadium bonds, and the District became the only game in town.

The political and financial barriers remain real, but they are surmountable -- if baseball moves. Now.

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