THE LORDS OF BASEBALL have gotten into the habit of demanding that cities provide new stadiums -- nothing but the finest -- if they wish to acquire or hold on to a team. The success of some of the new generation of ballparks in drawing fans, beginning with Baltimore's Camden Yards, has seemed to offer a model for helping owners cope with the game's challenging economic situation, in which player salaries devour the potential profits of clubs that otherwise might be prospering in the major leagues' cozy cartel.
Now, however, that model is running head-on into the fiscal facts of life, as just about every state and locality in the country faces burgeoning budget deficits. The idea of spending governments' funds on stadiums has become, at least for the time being, unrealistic. And so, it seems, have the expectations of baseball's leaders, who continue to demand all sorts of details and assurances from cities that want a team, even as the game's own situation becomes increasingly unsure. (Just one indicator: There's been a sharp decline in salaries offered to free-agent players this winter.)
Nevertheless, two localities are currently jumping through baseball's hoops, trying to provide the certainty the game's officials crave with regard to stadiums and plans for financing them. The question at hand is where the financially moribund Montreal Expos will go. The candidates are Portland, Ore., and the Washington area (which has competing potential ownership groups in the District and Northern Virginia). Portland is regarded as an up-and-coming city, but at present it has no suitable stadium, no ownership group, little hope of public financing, a far smaller population than this region and a minor league team that's deep in the red. The Washington area is, even by standards far more objective than ours, the better market at this time for baseball. And so far as concrete assets are concerned, it has the most important one of all: a full-size stadium capable of being converted, at reasonable expense and in fairly good time, into a ballpark.
Major League Baseball could have put the Expos in RFK Stadium this coming season and watched the fans and money roll in while the stadium issues were worked out. Instead, the Montreal team will continue to play in a nearly empty stadium and probably lose tons of money. Twenty-two of its "home" games will be played in Puerto Rico. And now Commissioner Bud Selig says the Expos may not even move for the 2004 season.
Some years ago the novelist Philip Roth created a fictional third major league of the 1940s, one of whose teams had to give up its stadium to the war effort and thereafter wandered from city to city all season long, never playing a home game. Let's hope the commissioner hasn't been reading a lot of fiction lately.