Opening day of yet another baseball season arrives today with Washington facing an empty stadium for the 15th year. As fans and even prospective owners of a new team here grow increasingly frustrated, baseball continues to play a waiting game with the capital.
"We've received no encouragement from the owners or Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, which we find disappointing," said real estate developer Oliver T. Carr, a major figure in a group of area businessmen interested in bringing a team to Washington. "We'd really like to hear from them."
Carr and another developer, James Clark, led a six-man delegation to New York in November to make a pitch to baseball owners for an expansion franchise. Since then, no word has been heard.
"My interest has never diminished," said Carr. "The interest level on the other side of the fence gives us pause."
A spokesman for Ueberroth said that "no time frame" exists for expansion, and the possibility of relocating a franchise is "not an alternative at this moment."
As the wait goes on, Washington fans appear united in their seemingly eternal vigil. According to banker Robert Pincus, a member of the D.C. Commission on Baseball, scarcely any defections have occurred among fans who have purchased about 15,000 season tickets for the nonexistent franchise by opening savings deposits in area banks.
"Translated, this means more than $8 million is now deposited in area banks and S&Ls," said Baseball Commission Chairman Frank Smith in a newsletter to the more than 10,000 fans and companies holding the season tickets.
"We urge you to stay with us, keep the faith and continue to show your loyalty to the cause by keeping that financial pledge in your baseball savings account," wrote Smith. "We continue to be very optimistic about our chances of bringing either an expansion team or an existing franchise to Washington in the very near future."
When, however, remains the unanswered question. With baseball's long-range planning committee mum, and baseball owners attempting first to strengthen financially weak franchises before expanding, Washington's best immediate hope for a team would appear to be an existing franchise.
The San Francisco Giants, for one, have suffered a sharp attendance drop over the last two seasons at windy Candlestick Park. Giants' attendance has fallen from 1,251,530 in 1983 to 1,001,545 in 1984 to 818,697 last season.
Carr, speaking as just one of his group, said he would be interested in helping to bring an existing franchise here if one were available.
The same sentiment was expressed by Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke. He said there has been "no abatement whatever" in his previously stated desire to buy a baseball franchise and bring it here.
He said he has been a longtime friend of Giants owner Bob Lurie and believes that if Lurie ever has any intention of moving "he'd be in touch with me."
Cooke said he remains greatly interested, will keep in touch with Lurie this year, and would be eager to pursue talks with Lurie "if -- and this is one heck of a big if -- if he decided to sell and if he decided to allow it to move."
What is discouraging to some civic leaders involved in the pursuit is the pace of events -- at the moment there is no sign of a franchise relocating and no sign of expansion. In the words of Carr: "There's nothing going on."
"We're on dead center," said Andy Ockershausen, Baseball Commission member and former WMAL executive. "The city is ready."
While all involved in the November session with the owners believe Washington made a first-rate presentation, Ockershausen expressed a frustration he experienced then, a frustration that has continued.
"It was like playing poker with someone," he said of the meeting. "I don't know what's behind that facade."
Once in a while, he said, the owners would say, " 'That's impressive. That's impressive.' The thing that impressed them the most was that we've got money in the bank. That really got their attention."
But while baseball officials had forewarned of no promises, they were not even dispensing hope.
"Only economic pressure is going to work," said Ockershausen. "The owners have no commitments, no obligations. They're going to make a business judgment . . . They're going to make a bottom-line, economic decision."
Smith told ticket holders in the commission's first newsletter that "we are now closer to opening day at RFK Stadium than we've been in the past 15 years."
What he means by that, Smith explained, is what he said, based on fan support as reflected in the 15,000 season-ticket purchases and what he called "a new image" of Washington by baseball owners as a result of the commission's efforts. The owners, Smith said, now realize "there is a real economic value to expanding to Washington -- and that is going to get us a ball club, no doubt about it."
Pincus said the 15,000 figure represents full-season commitments, that deposits for partial-season plans are combined in figuring the 15,000 total. According to a Baseball Commission spokesman, all the season-ticket accounts are interest-bearing.
Pincus said Washington's presentation to baseball in November "did an excellent job of enhancing" the city's chances for a team and that he believes Washington is "at the top of the list" for expansion. Now, however, baseball is saddled with "a few weak franchises they want to see improved . . . If there is relocation, Washington would certainly be at the top of that list, too."
Similarly, the former commissioner of baseball, Bowie Kuhn, believes Washington continues to be a prime candidate. "The questions are availability and when," he said.
Kuhn said he remains interested in being part of "any respectable group" that would bring a franchise to Washington.
He, too, indicated that owners are interested in strengthening weak franchises before considering expansion. To say that expansion, at best, is a minimum of two years away is "not an illogical speculation," he said. On relocation, he said: "As a commissioner who long preached franchise stability, and never had a franchise moved after Washington, I'm not preaching relocation. But I don't think you can rule it out."
Ockershausen has no qualms about "preaching relocation." It is one of the things he said he hopes to be doing in the next few months.
Ockershausen said it would be helpful, but not crucial, to Washington's cause if RFK Stadium is shifted from the federal to the city government. "If the stadium were the city's, the City Council would be more likely to act on improvements," said Ockershausen. Presently, legislation to transfer the stadium has been approved by the House, but still needs approval of the Senate.
And how, throughout this long wait, is the typical Washington baseball fan enduring?
"There's a lot of frustration right now," said Patrick Malone, head of the Washington Senators Fan Club. "Especially with all we did last year with the season-ticket drive. You come so far, do so much, and it's like you end up with nothing."
But, like the Baseball Commission's Smith, Malone believes Washington has gained in its efforts to secure a team -- "In the past 15 years, nothing's come this far." And like all commission members, Malone stressed the importance of fans' keeping their season-ticket money in area banks. "It's important in the long run," he said. "This is our best chance."