The lords of baseball will be meeting soon in San Diego, and among the things they may decide is whether Washington gets another baseball team. Their answer should be no.
Despite all the hoopla and all the season- ticket deposits, Washington still is not a good enough baseball town to support a major- league team. It has lost two teams in the last 25 years. Giving it a third would be a horrendous mistake that would succeed only in undermining the Orioles' hard-won success.
But Washington probably will get a new franchise, because the lords of baseball have continually ignored the lessons of their own experience -- chief among them being that big markets aren't necessarily good baseball towns and small markets aren't necessarily bad baseball towns.
Over and over again, the major-league leadership has been bamboozled by civic leaders around the country who are willing to do anything to get a team, whether having a team makes sense or not.
Though some were very smart moves, at least half of the 20 expansions and franchise shifts in the last 30 years have created or compounded some sort of mistake. The Braves left Milwaukee, a small market but a great baseball town, for Atlanta, a great market but a lousy baseball town. The American League rewarded Seattle for the failure of one expansion franchise by giving it another, which, not surprisingly, has never caught on. Houston and Dallas are two of the greatest markets in the country, but Texas is football country, and the presence of these two cities in the major leagues hasn't made one whit of difference.
One of the worst mistakes of all carries with it an important lesson for Washington. In 1968, the A's moved from Kansas City (a small market but a great baseball town, as we learned this fall) to Oakland. The assumption was that the Bay area, a metropolis of 5 million people, was large enough to support both the Giants and the A's. This, of course, did not turn out to be true; as a result, a market capable of supporting one team moderately well has, for almost 20 years, been saddled with two teams suffering horrendous financial losses because they have been unable to build attendance. I fear that the same thing would occur if a team were placed in Washington.
My friends in Washington tell me that the city isn't Baltimore, which is most assuredly true; but Oakland isn't San Francisco, either. After a long struggle, the Orioles have at least been rewarded for their hard work in building one of baseball's most admirable franchises. The team's success depends in large part on Washington.
Yet history suggests tht Washington is incapable of supporting its own team. History also suggests that there are only three cities in the country capable of supporting two baseball teams (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles) and -- as the San Francisco-Oakland experience tells us -- that even a multi-centered megalopolis of 5 million people isn't big enough. The creation of a new Washington team would simply be another stupid mistake by the lords of baseball trying to appease those misguided civic boosters who somehow believe that a city is not truly "major league" without a baseball team, even if it already has Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Redskins.
Washington probably should be allowed a franchise only under two conditions. First, the ownership and the community must commit themselves to subsidizing the team financially -- forever, if necessary. (This is more or less the assurance that has saved the franchises in Minneapolis and, more recently, Pittsburgh -- two cities with tremendous civic pride, though not a lot of baseball fans.) Second, the team and the city must agree to pay a heavy indemnity to the Orioles to make up for the loss of a good chunk of their gate.
This is an awfully heavy price to pay just so Washingtonians can say they've got a major-league baseball team. In fact, it's so heavy that it probably isn't good for baseball.
If Washington and Baltimore had to subsidize baseball as if it were the opera or a dance company, one or both of the franchises would inevitably fold -- or head for the Sun Belt.