So baseball is back. Even the vice president is excited. It will be great, Dick Cheney told a reporter during a campaign stop in Minnesota, for Washington to be a "ball town again."
"The question is: Are they going to be any good?" Cheney chuckled about the cellar-dwelling Montreal Expos, who will be reborn next spring as the Washington Something-or-others, assuming the D.C. Council approves the mayor's plan to build a new ballpark.
The other question -- and it is, no doubt, related -- is: Can a baseball team succeed financially in the nation's capital?
Thirty-three years ago, the answer was no. Robert Short, the Minneapolis trucking magnate who owned the Washington Senators, abandoned the District for the greener pastures of Arlington, Tex., in 1971, after announcing that he could no longer afford to play to empty stands at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.
Short died of lung cancer in 1982. But if he were alive today, he would be "very skeptical about the [Expos'] chances for success," according to his son, Brian Short.
"To the day he died, my dad was very disappointed he couldn't make a go of it in Washington, D.C.," Brian Short said in an interview. While Robert Short owned the Senators, "he tried every promotion, from Take Your Grandmother to the Ballgame Day to you name it. They had Pantyhose Night. Hot Pants Night. Every conceivable oddball promotion, they did it."
Brian Short, who lives in Minneapolis and was in college during the Senators' dying days, remembers his dad hiring the reclusive Ted Williams as manager in hopes of sparking interest in the team. "There hadn't been a bigger promotional thing up till that time in baseball. Or, frankly, ever since. Ted Williams didn't talk to anybody," Brian Short said.
And yet, on game days, the stadium was still empty. In the wake of the 1968 riots, the District was hemorrhaging residents and businesses, Short said. "There was simply no economic activity and no middle class in D.C. at the time."
Back then, Short said, baseball games drew two kinds of fans: businesses entertaining customers and families with kids. In D.C., he said, the Senators didn't see much of either.
"The press is big in D.C. But you know how you guys are about buying tickets to anything," Short said, referring to the media's notorious appetite for freebies. "The other big group is politicians and government, and that's not a big fan base, either."
It didn't help, Short said, that the Senators were "crummy." Still, he said, "there were a lot of people with big dough that tried to make baseball work in the District. Ultimately, nobody could figure out a way to do it."
Short said he wishes Washington well and hopes one day to catch a game here. And while his dad would be skeptical about the Expos' prospects, he said, the old man also would be "very, very hopeful."
Indeed, "if he were alive," Short said, "he'd probably be trying to invest in the team."
Queasy in Victory
Poor Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D). For years, he has waged an aggressive campaign to woo Major League Baseball. Last spring, he dropped to one knee and offered up a glittering new stadium, paid for with city funds.
So what happened on the big day, when Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig finally said yes? Tony Williams was sick as a dog.
"I know I normally have an effervescent personality," Williams joked as he opened his weekly news conference last Wednesday. "But it's not going to be evident today."
How sick was the mayor? A spokeswoman declined to identify the illness. She said only that hizzoner got "really sick" after returning from a quick trip to Paris.
Whatever the bug, Williams seemed utterly miserable. He sucked cough drops through the news conference. He barely tolerated a small band of reporters assigned to follow him around. He nearly nodded off twice during an event to commemorate victims of gun violence. And he virtually ignored the giddy citizens who recognized him on the street and shouted things like "Did we get the team?" and "Play ball!"
The call from Selig finally came at 4 p.m. Williams took it in his office, surrounded by council members and sports and planning officials. Later, during a 5 p.m. celebration at the City Museum, the mayor managed to smile and yell and pump one arm.
But when asked for his reaction immediately after the call, Williams merely looked wan.
"I'm elated," he deadpanned. "Don't I look elated?"
Slots Appeal Loses
Lost amid the news about baseball was the death last week of the D.C. slots initiative. A three-judge panel of the D.C. Court of Appeals upheld an elections board ruling that barred the gambling measure from the Nov. 2 ballot.
Businessman Pedro Alfonso predicted that slots will be "back on the table for the 2006 election." But he said it's unclear whether he, former D.C. council member John Ray and the St. Croix businessmen who bankrolled the campaign would be the ones to put it there.
"We have to assess whether it's a viable team, and whether or not the potential contribution from all the associated players could contribute to the future success of introducing an initiative," Alfonso said. "I think we have to do an adjustment to find out who and by what means this will get reintroduced in the future."
One thing is sure, though, Alfonso said: "If we could have gotten slots passed, there would have been plenty of money to build that [baseball] stadium."