Spirits were not merely high but almost buoyant among members of the D.C. Baseball Commission today as these novices to the baseball world felt the exhilaration of taking the first steps toward trying to get an expansion franchise.
After staying up late Monday night at parties with most of the sport's brass, the Washington politicians and businessmen had a breakfast confab today with major league baseball's commissioner, Peter Ueberroth.
By the time they headed out this evening for another gala, after a long day of lobby lobbying here at the winter meetings, members of the commission clearly had a far more specific sense of their tasks and goals than when they arrived.
"Things have gone even better than we hoped," said the commission's chairman, Frank Smith, as he proudly rattled off the names of all the baseball brass he had chewed the fat with in just two days here. "I can't see how we could have gotten off to a better start."
"Basically," said Smith, "Ueberroth told us, 'Push to get ready for the summer meeting. After our labor question is settled, we will address expansion next. Work hard, get your package together. You can't tell when things will start to break quickly.' "
"We've established our presence here," said Robert Pincus, president of the D.C. National Bank. "The seed has been planted. Now, we have to keep meeting when we get home, brainstorm and follow up on all the things we've learned here."
Perhaps more than anything, commission members have learned that Washington may be much closer to getting a franchise -- if it will just work hard for it -- than many in the group thought.
"I think we've been too pessimistic," said Councilwoman Sue Mills of Prince George's County. "Washington clearly has much more to offer than any of these other cities if we get in here and compete."
"There has been a renaissance in Washington that other cities only talk about," said Pincus. "We've had it. But the (team) owners here have no idea that it's happened. They are back 15 years ago. We haven't tooted our horn enough."
While the commission tooted, Jack Kent Cooke spent much of the day working the phones trying to make sure there was no sliver of chance of buying an existing National League club. (Washington cannot get an AL team because the Baltimore Orioles could and would block a team in their league from moving into their market.)
After talks with executives of the San Francisco Giants, Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates, Cooke shrugged and said, "You have to try.
"I'm an empiricist. There's a story about the two Greeks discussing in the abstract whether a rock or a feather would drop faster. They argued and argued. A Roman walked by and said, 'Why don't you just drop them and find out?'
"I'm like the Roman. I want to find out."
Today he found out, not for the first time, that Washington isn't going to luck into a quick grab of an old team. Long work for a new team is by far Cooke's best hope.
Commission members were especially happy about what they considered to be the writing between the lines of some of Ueberroth's statements in his meeting this morning with representatives of seven club-hungry towns.
"Ueberroth said baseball was going to be systematic. And that they were going to rely on objective facts," said Smith. "That's good news for us. We have all the facts on our side."
With that, Smith produced a 32-page book of graphs and charts that compare Washington to its rivals -- Denver, Tampa, Indianapolis, Vancouver, Phoenix, New Orleans and Buffalo -- in a dozen areas.
Population, households, tourism, income, buying power, consumer spending, automobiles, "best place to live" rankings, media power, public safety, labor force and projected attendance were the categories.
The numbers were eloquent. The brochure's title -- Washington, a Major League City -- might as well have had the subtitle, "And Seven Other Cities That Can't Compare With It."
"The key is for us to be as concrete as possible," said Smith. "We know that the onus is on us to prove we have fan support. We want to do that every way we can, including trying to get a big turnout for the Cracker Jack Old Timers Game at RFK Stadium this summer.
"We also want to get owners to come to see our subway system, ride the beltway, see our parking.
"Beyond that, we have to play a key role in getting that bill out of Congress in January which would deed RFK to the District (and away from the Interior Department)," said Smith.
Once the District -- i.e., the Armory Board, controlled by Mayor Marion Barry -- has RFK Stadium in its hands, a master lease can be drawn up, like the one Cooke is seeking that would make him sole tenant of the park for 20 to 25 years.
"Towns have a history of offering better stadium-lease deals to prospective owners to get a team back than they ever did to the team that left," said Smith. "But these issues have to be played out in public."
Rumors here are that, since Cooke has almost singlehandedly revived interest in a team, other Washington groups now are talking about forming syndicates to compete with Cooke.
"We hear that," said one commission member. "But if there's anybody else out there with an interest in getting in this picture, they better do it in a hurry and do it publicly. Cooke is way out in front on this. He did the work and he's reaping the rewards. He's gone public with his desires and his plans and he's certainly got the money."
Before these meetings, there was some question whether Cooke could create even a wave in a baseball setting, after being away from the sport for more than 20 years.
"Cooke called me and said he was coming to talk to his old friends like Buzzie Bavasi, Gabe Paul and Jim Campbell," said one owner. "Two of them have retired and the third is much less active now. You have to wonder how much contact he's kept with the sport. He was apparently a friend of Branch Rickey and Walter O'Malley, but that was a different era.
"Cooke comes on strong. He could alienate people," continued the owner. "But he's also proven his competence as an owner in several pro sports."
When Cooke and members of the D.C. commission arrived here, they worried they would go unnoticed. Instead, from its first days back in the baseball sweepstakes, Washington has been taken seriously. When Ueberroth pays his compliments to the cities doing their wooing here, his usual order of mention is "Denver, Washington, Tampa and Vancouver." Then silence.
"It makes you wonder why the (D.C.) city government didn't do anything for so long," said Smith.