Mention Washington's drive for a major league expansion baseball team in any of the other areas competing for a franchise and the reaction is usually the same: the city already has failed as a baseball town -- twice.
No one can dispute the facts. Calvin Griffith moved his American League Senators out of Washington and to Minneapolis in 1961 after his team had drawn fewer than 750,000 when the league average was 1.1 million in 1960. Bob Short took his Senators to Texas in 1971 after his team had drawn 655,000 in the District of Columbia when the league average was nearly 1 million.
But does that mean the city failed the team or the team failed the city?
"I don't see where that has any pertinence or application as to what can be done under the proper ownership in the future," said Jack Kent Cooke, owner of the Redskins, who would like to become owner of a major league baseball team in Washington. "It's the ownership that was a two-time loser, not the city of Washington."
"We always had a loser in baseball," said Bob Pincus, president of the D.C. National Bank and a member of the D.C. Baseball Commission. "From 1943 to '71, they never finished in first place."
Indeed, the Senators lost 2,447 games, averaging more than 90 defeats a season for 27 years.
"In 1969, it was the first time in 20 years that a team here finished above .500 and we had about 950,000 attend," Pincus said. (Last season, three major league teams -- in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Seattle -- had attendance of less than 1 million.)
At 3.4 million, Washington has a larger population than any of the other areas trying for a major league team and is the nation's eighth-largest television market. Only Miami's metropolitan area comes close, but Miami generally is regarded as being back in the pack of competitors. Washington wasn't even in the pack a year ago but now is regarded as being in the top three by most willing to rank the competitors, along with Denver and Tampa-St. Petersburg.
"We're going to try to get up to No. 2 or 1," said Pincus.
Washington ranks high in other categories. The average salary of $23,482 in the District is the second-highest in the nation and the area's after-tax income totals $45.6 billion, the sixth-largest pool of spending income in the United States, according to figures compiled by commission consultant Morris Siegel.
That spending pool doesn't necessarily extend to the D.C. Baseball Commission, which Pincus says is working with a "skeleton group of people" and a paid staff of one (Siegel, a former columnist for the Washington Star). Pincus concedes some of the competing cities have "more professional" operations and says, "We need help to be smooth."
What doesn't help is the squabbling that sometimes goes on in the commission. For example, the commission's chairman, D.C. councilman Frank Smith, disputes the notion that more funding would help and says the commission has plenty of money.
The District has supplied $55,000, the Armory Board $25,000 and the commission must raise $20,000, most of which Smith says will come from "an activity around July 1." What activity? He's not sure yet, he says, but probably a reception to coincide with the Old Timers Game at RFK. So far, says another source, "they haven't raised a penny."
By comparison, the Denver Baseball Commission has operated on a $100,000 budget since last June, according to its executive director, Steve Katich. Katich said that the commission received $75,000 from AT&T and raised another $25,000 by hosting a USA-Japan Olympic baseball game at Mile High Stadium last July.
Smith said if the D.C. commission had more money and hired more staffers, then it might alienate its volunteers. Another source questions that, saying that six phone lines were installed at the commission office at RFK and so far there has been one volunteer, "a kid who was there for two hours."
Pincus said the money the District has provided has come in large part because of the efforts of Mayor Marion Barry, who is confident baseball would succeed in Washington this time, unlike in the past.
"You didn't have the community behind it like you do now," Barry said. "I think the business community is more sensitive to the economics of sports than before."
There is no timetable set for expansion, and Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth said Friday that will be up to team owners to decide, "but I'd rather it be sooner than later. Several cities are looking pretty good." He refused to elaborate.
Still, Washington has a long way to go in building its image among baseball leaders.
"They still perceive us as a federal government, crime-ridden . . . town," said Pincus, who hopes to invite the members of baseball's long-range planning committee to spend a weekend here and "let them experience what we have."
The federal town image cuts both ways. There remains a question as to whether all the senators, congressmen and federal workers will buy tickets to baseball games, but there is no question that a team here could be a kind of permanent lobbying force for baseball in its drive to retain its antitrust exemption.
All the image issues come down to one: will fans buy tickets and come to games at RFK Stadium? To show that they will, the commission launched a season ticket drive this spring, hoping to sell 10,000 tickets to a nonexistent team and convince the doubters. (Indianapolis, another city vying for expansion baseball, is beginning a similar campaign Thursday.)
"It's a bit of a roll of the dice," said Pincus, who as president of D.C. National Bank is helping lead the drive that involves 22 banks keeping the ticket money in escrow accounts.
"I don't know what we are going to do if it's not successful."
Smith said an unsuccessful campaign would "look awfully bad" and could put Washington "out of the ball game" for an expansion franchise. But he concedes it's a tough sell.
"We're selling stock in a cow that's not born," said Smith. "We're not even sure there's anybody out there who's pregnant."
So far, a source said, 1,727 season tickets have been sold. There is a media blitz scheduled for the final week of June and a plan to mass produce buttons bearing the slogan "Baseball in '87," Pincus said.
The ticket drive will continue through July, with the hope that a good total will be ready for presentation to the major league owners, who will meet in Anaheim, Calif., in early August and discuss expansion. However, American League President Bobby Brown said the earnestness of the discussions will depend in large part on whether negotiations with the players union are completed by then.
Whenever a discussion of expansion and Washington comes up, it quickly includes the question: What about the Orioles, 40 miles away in Baltimore?
"What about them?" Pincus asked. "I go to one game a year in Baltimore . . . I can't relate to Baltimore."
Approval of an expansion city would take a three-quarters majority vote by major league owners -- including, of course, Baltimore's Edward Bennett Williams. Williams has said he won't comment on a team in Washington.
Still, the Orioles estimate about 20 percent of their attendance comes from the Washington area and that money would be sorely missed by Williams should a team come here.
Pincus said he has never met with Williams and doesn't plan to. "I would meet with him only if he expressed an interest in moving the team to Washington," he said.
Should Washington get a team -- expansion or existing (Cooke has been trying to buy the San Francisco Giants) -- it would play at RFK Stadium, but before that would be possible, at least $5 million in renovations are needed. Control of RFK now rests with the Department of the Interior, but a bill pending in congress would give stadium control to the District, which could then issue bonds for the work. Barry said passage of the bill is "just a matter of time" and could come this summer.
Transfer of the stadium is perceived to be a minor hitch, and the money needed for the work is minor compared with the $36 million that major league owners recently announced that clubs lost last year. Peter Bavasi, president of the Cleveland Indians, says the "typical team" in the major leagues lost $3 million.
It's no wonder that one of Ueberroth's three criteria for expansion is qualified ownership. There is some wonder, however, at Ueberroth's pointed desire for "multiple" ownership and more than one baseball insider has suggested that is directed at Cooke. Clearly a man who can casually buy the Chrysler Building has enough financial resources to run a team, but he may have too much individualism to suit the baseball establishment.
The other two criteria are fan support and political support and Ueberroth has suggested cities could show the potential for support by selling 20,000 season tickets in advance. "The criteria is right," Ueberroth said. "All the balloons and cocktail parties some cities have done the past eight years are all meaningless. I have to set up some goals for cities to work toward."
Besides Cooke, former baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn has expressed interest (joining with local businessmen) in bringing a team to Washington. Sources say Kuhn would be the front man for a group including James Clark, owner of George Hyman Construction, and developer Oliver T. Carr. The mere presence of Kuhn, forced out as commissioner last year, could be a tremendous plus for Washington since he still commands much respect among team owners.
Other potential ownership groups are also forming, including one involving developer Ted Lerner and dentist Robert Schattner.
"I don't think (losing $3 million per year) can be easily reversed and I can't speak for other teams in the National League or the American League," Cooke said. "I would hope a team in Washington would break even financially."
Even from the outset? "Not necessarily," Cooke said. "But you don't gauge the financial success of a team over a one-year period."
Barry just wants a team here in 1987. As for the potential of it losing money, he said, "That's for the owners to worry about."