When the history of the third Washington Senators is written, the author will be tempted to start with the tale of how the team came thisclose to playing in a place called Pentagon City.
As Major League Baseball puts the finishing touches on a deal to move the Montreal Expos to the District, those involved in the years-long relocation soap opera say that Northern Virginia would have won this cross-Potomac competition -- if it had held firm to the Pentagon City stadium site.
Instead, the Arlington County Board and a well-organized opposition snuffed that proposal, eliminating Virginia's central, transit-friendly site.
Yes, folks, the stories about how we got the team are bubbling up.
The people who have spent years humming the song from "Damn Yankees" ("When the odds are sayin' you'll never win/That's when a grin should start") are so confident that the Expos are about to morph into the Senators that they are talking, though not yet with their names attached. They still fear Commissioner Bud Selig's fickle finger of fate and Orioles owner Peter Angelos's bluster and briefs.
But here's what architects of Washington's baseball bid are saying:
The Northern Virginia ownership group, fearing that the competition between Washington and the suburbs was hurting the region's chances of landing the Expos, was ready to combine forces with their District counterpart on several occasions. But the D.C. group said no-go unless the Virginia investors committed to the city -- which was never going to happen.
In the final stages, both sides played the race card. Virginia raised doubts about whether suburbanites would take children into the District for a night game, and the District group asked Major League Baseball to consider the public relations dimension of choosing "lily-white" Loudoun County as the new symbol of baseball's future.
It's important to recall that the D.C.-Virginia face-off for a ball club was an accident of history, says Brian Hannigan, spokesman for the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority. In 1994, when Rep. Tom Davis and Virginia Baseball Club Chairman Bill Collins launched a bid for an expansion franchise, the District was not remotely in the game.
"The very idea was ludicrous," Hannigan says, "because of who the mayor was, and with the control board taking over the city. The Redskins were moving to Prince George's County."
Hannigan says Virginia never sought to raise race in the competition. "But do suburban fans want to go to a downtown ballpark? The surveys we did said they weren't crazy about it." He confirms that baseball executives loved the Pentagon City site, but says they also were encouraging about the Loudoun location.
Interestingly, despite his background as a former partner of George W. Bush in the Texas Rangers ownership group, Fred Malek, the lead partner in the Washington baseball club, never approached the president for support for returning the sport to the nation's capital. Malek considered it inappropriate to ask the president to take sides in a competition involving several places.
That left the sales job to Mayor Tony Williams, who, as usual, deserves more credit than he gets. Baseball executives say Williams and his staff have been persuasive and efficient.
But, as usual, the mayor has done such a halfhearted job of telling the story and selling the policy that opponents of baseball are easily gathering support.
The next debate should be about whether to invest in expanding the tax base to give the District the resources it needs to care for those most in need. Instead, the anti-baseball campaign has successfully framed the question this way: Should the city shell out for a sport that has displayed too little interest in fans who aren't well-off?
If all goes well, the other pressing issue will be the team name. Williams allows as how he's open to any name except the Senators, because "we don't have a senator." Somehow I missed the news release in which Anthony Williams became the Mark Plotkin Home Rule Purist of the Week.
Our baseball team -- then, now, forever -- is called the Senators. The mayor is correct: This city does not have senators. But we have dreams, and for 33 years, people said we would never get another baseball team. Now, it is within our grasp. One day, the right to vote will be, too.