Will Washington get a major league expansion franchise?
Speaking to a group of Washington Post editors and reporters yesterday, Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth laid down the sport's three main criteria for getting a team and appraised Washington's performance in each of the areas. Ueberroth's criteria were simple and clear; his reviews of Washington's performance to date and its future chances were sharply mixed.
Measurable fan enthusiasm, political support (manifested in a favorable stadium lease) and the ability to provide strong "multiple" local ownership were the commissioner's three crucial measuring sticks in the current expansion derby, which probably will see two new National League teams created by 1987.
Summarizing his view of Washington's assets in a cryptic nutshell, Ueberroth said, "I like the market. It's the seventh- or eighth-largest. And a great TV market . . . I rode the subway. Big improvement. That's all."
Fan support comes first on his scorecard.
"This can be measured in several ways," said Ueberroth, pointing out that Washington's demographic potential was exceptional. "The most visible way (to show support) is through commitments, hard commitments, for season tickets. If some community said, 'Here, we have 20,000 season tickets sold for the next five years, really sold,' that's impressive."
Asked, "Are you saying that there is no visible fan support in the Washington area, nothing that is impressive?" Ueberroth answered, "Yup. We're going to be very pragmatic and say, 'Let's see it.' There may be talk that there is (support), but I haven't seen anything yet."
Asked, "How do you sell 20,000 tickets to a nonexistent dance?" Ueberroth answered, "That's not my job. I ask you . . . my job is to be fair to eight to 10 cities that have some interest. Lay down some fairly clear criteria."
Asked what he meant by "solid" commitments for season tickets when it is difficult to write a check payable to a team that doesn't exist, Ueberroth insisted, "There are people (in other cities) doing things. It's up to you . . . I know what it (solid) means, but I'm not going to provide directions and start telling everybody what to do."
The new D.C. Baseball Commission in Washington is collecting pledge cards (13,000 cards have been received, pledging sale of about 980,000 total tickets, but no money has been requested).
The second criteria is what Ueberroth called "Multiple, roots-oriented owners. Roots in the community. Multiple, so that if one guy gets a divorce . . . or wants to sell . . . it doesn't disrupt the whole town . . .
"An ideal example would be Milwaukee (where) Bud Selig owns 12 percent of the team. He loves baseball and cares about it. But there're 20-some owners, good people, they love Milwaukee. They represent families, businesses, little guys, big guys. (The new owners in) Cincinnati, the same way, 15 different people. This is the ideal situation I'm describing in these (criteria). A town might get a team just because it was exceptionally strong in one or two areas."
"Local political support, substantial (and on) both sides of the aisle. Support that'll be there for a while," said Ueberroth of standard No. 3. "That's tough to describe, but you can see it very clearly in (a town's) stadium lease." On the other side of the coin, Ueberroth said, "Don't have any more cocktail parties. Don't make any more pretty brochures like (some towns have) been doing for 10 years. And don't spend a lot of money wining and dining owners. All those acts, and political pressure, will be counterproductive . . . Congressional pressure (for D.C.) is on the negative side."
Asked about his view of Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke -- the only outspoken, highly visible and financially able buyer who's said he wants a team in Washington -- Ueberroth said, "I gotta leave that one alone because I just don't know anything about anybody who's an ownership candidate (from D.C.). We've heard from three or four different people. So I wouldn't classify anybody as 'visible.' He might be visible because he owns the other (football) team."
Appraised of Ueberroth's comments, Cooke made two points: "How does one go about proving fan support? Promises of season-ticket purchases are a far cry from having money in an escrow account and I don't believe any city claims to have that. (As for multiple ownership) I think you'll find that successful teams in all professional sports have almost always had a single dominant owner. What was the last team that won a World Series with 'multiple ownership?' "
On other baseball franchise fronts, San Francisco owner Bob Laurie says he finally has despaired of finding local ownership to buy the team. He will take it off the market until after the 1985 season. At that point, it is the safest of presumptions that Cooke, who has offered to buy the team despite its lease problems, will be near the front of the line outside Laurie's office. Ueberroth said yesterday that, although he is generally opposed to franchise relocation, there seemed to be "serious doubt" about the Bay area's supporting teams in both Oakland and San Francisco.