What is the future of major league baseball in Washington?
It has taken 10 years to wise up and face the facts, but that's the answer.
No team now.
No team soon.
No plans, at the present time, from any reasonable quarter, to bring a team to Washington.
And, perhaps, no team even in the more remote future.
As far as baseball is concerned, there no longer is a "Washington problem." Commissioner Bowie Kuhn says so.
"The solution for Washington at the present is the Baltimore Orioles," said Kuhn in a recent interview.
"Since Edward Bennett Williams has bought the Orioles, he has consistently shown an interest in the total Baltimore-Washington area," said Kuhn. "The Orioles can accommodate both cities and pull the two areas together as one regional franchise.
"Williams is perfect for this problem because he has a broad-scope perspective and understands the place of marketing in all this. I think the Orioles can be an economically stronger franchise than ever before, and a potentially great one.
"We have great stability of franchises today. That's good for baseball, but not good for Washington," continued Kuhn, a native Washingtonian. "We have ownership turnover, but not geographic turnover. Again, that's good news in general, but not for Washington.
"The trend of the game is toward strong regional franchises which draw from a reasonably large area. The two most obvious examples are the Minnesota Twins in Minneapolis-St. Paul and the Texas Rangers in Dallas-Fort Worth.
"However, several other teams are really in the same category. The Red Sox have always been a New England franchise, drawing from seven states. Both St. Louis and Cincinnati are famous for pulling fans from 100 miles away and much more.
"Kansas City is now in the same situation, reaching out for fans. People in Los Angeles and Anaheim think nothing of a 50-mile drive to see the Dodgers or Angels."
Ten years ago, when the Washington Senators left to become the Arlington (Texas) Rangers, baseball had two teams in what Kuhn now euphemistically calls "the Chesapeake area" and neither could draw an average of 1 million fans a season. Now, baseball sees one healthy Oriole franchise drawing 1.75 million a year.
The simplest conclusion is the one that baseball has drawn: you can either have two struggling clubs in Baltimore and Washington or one solvent franchise.
Williams' twin notions, ever since he bought the Birds in 1979, have been:
To consolidate the two markets, both in terms of raw attendance and TV-radio money;
To lobby for a new taxpayer-financed Xanadu of a stadium either in South Baltimore or south of Baltimore, that would attract both Washingtonians and curiosity-seekers.
Both ideas have one natural goal: profits.
At present, Kuhn says he and others in baseball assume that "at least 20 percent of the Orioles' attendance is from D.C., and perhaps more in the future."
Within the past six months, Williams' intentions toward his franchise have crystallized. At first, he saw the possibility of playing Washington and Baltimore against each other to his gain. For two years, he held the specter of Washington over Baltimore's head, saying he would keep the team there as long as attendance warranted it. And no longer. He called this a trial period, a term Baltimoreans didn't appreciate.
Then, after drawing 3.5 million people in 1979-80, Williams decided that he had "learned a lot about baseball and about Baltimore. . . The time may come when I leave baseball, but baseball will never leave Baltimore."
Williams had finally decided. His regional franchise was going to be rooted closer to avid, less cosmopolitan Baltimore than to Washington. His preferences on the subject of a new stadium ran toward Baltimore's Inner Harbor, rather than some desolate midpoint between the cities. "I've even got a name for the park," log-rolled Williams. "Babe Ruth Memorial Stadium."
All this has satisfied baseball. The game may have many problems, but in Kuhn's view, Washington no longer is one of them. Williams can be trusted to incorporate Washington in his thinking, not because he is a noble soul, but because he has demonstrated a manifest interest in Washington's capital. Baseball is comfortable with such motivations.
Now that "no problem" exists, a few skeletons can be let out of the Washington closet.
How does a forsaken city go about wooing and winning back a team, Kuhn was asked.
"Milwaukee (in the late '60s) is a perfect example," said Kuhn. "They formed a very strong financial syndicate with very impressive community people involved. From 1965 on (until success in '70) those people just haunted the major league meetings for years until they finally got what they wanted.
"They made themselves known to people in baseball. They set up an outstanding stadium lease, an outstanding deal on parking and concessions. But, most of all, it was the nature of the people in the group and how hard they worked that impressed everyone and made the difference. We haven't seen that in Washington, not at any time."
Those are the words that Washington has to swallow with a hard gulp "not at any time."
Kuhn's implication is that the reason Washington doesn't have a team is not that it lost two other clubs (which, coincidentally, became those two initial "regional" franchises in Minnesota and Texas). And it isn't strictly because of past attendance figures in Washington, the demographics of population (i.e., race) or the supposed crime around RFK Stadium.
The reason, Kuhn implies, is that Washington didn't have the right people with the right clout in the right places at the right times.
As early as 1973, Kuhn had set guidelines to help Washington understand what it had to do regarding: a rent-free stadium lease for the first million in attendance, parking and concessions deals, working capital over and above purchase price ($5 million) and minimum necessary broadcast revenues ($650,000).
Those hard figures, as Kuhn called them, never were met. Out of the plethora of groups, blue-ribbon committees, syndicates and mystery silent partners from that bygone era, Washington never came up with a buyer who had all the pieces of the puzzle.
For a decade, Washington was long on what Charles O. Finley called "buyers who have big hats but no cattle." Also, in the cases of Finley and former Baltimore owner Jerry Hoffberger, serious Washington buyers faced people who had a desire not to sell, but spent years teasing purchasers and trying to avoid the financial inevitability of losing their teams.
Since 1971, conditions have gotten worse, not better, for a new Washington-only franchise. Then, it was assumed that the magic numbers for survival were 850,000 in attendance and $850,000 in broadcast revenue. Now, 1.5 million would be more realistic in both. Baseball's popularity has risen, but so has its player-salary cost. The direction of baseball's ownership in this free agent era is away from humble, blue-blooded millionaires and toward ultrarich conglomerates. That's one more strike against Washington.
When the time finally came for Washington to get baseball back, it was the state of Washington, not the city of Washington, that got a team in 1978. The city of Washington had beauty, sentiment, tradition and rhetoric; the state of Washington had a multimillion-dollar, ironclad lawsuit against baseball for absconding across state borders with the Seattle Pilots in 1970.
Given this choice -- between the team with litigatory leverage, plus a big-bucks ownership syndicate, and Washington's high-minded love of baseball -- guess what heppened? The nation's capital suddenly found itself in the same category with St. Paul and Fort Worth as a city that was deemed able to hold up the lesser end of a two-city regional franchise axis.
Are there any current cities that do have the requisite financing and enthusiasm and community unity to get a baseball team, should the National League ever expand, or a current team become financially desperate?
"Several," said Kuhn.
"The ones that are usually mentioned."
Like Tampa, New Orleans and Denver?
"Yes," said Kuhn.
Kuhn can talk more freely now about Washington, because Washington is a dead issue. But he won't even say the words "Tampa, New Orleans and Denver" for fear of listing them in the wrong order or leaving out some other deserving and fanatical city.
You see, there still are communities that, because they are "working so hard" to get a team, can have their feelings hurt and their prideful feathers ruffled.
Washington isn't one of them any more.