Three weeks into another long-distance relationship with the sport, Washington-area baseball fans again have been given a morsel of hope for having the summer game at RFK Stadium by 1987.
The Houston Astros, suffering from severe attendance problems, may be looking at Washington as a relocation site for the 1987 season, several baseball sources said.
These same sources cautioned that Astros management may be no more than seeking alternatives to Houston by sending out feelers, and that Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth almost certainly would frown on a franchise shift.
"It's something to think about," one team's president said, "but I'd say it won't happen."
In an interview with The Washington Post yesterday, Astros owner John J. McMullen said he has considered moving his team "only in the way you would consider anything. You stop and think about any situation at one time or another."
However, he also added: "Am I satisfied [in Houston]? No. We haven't gotten the attendance we want, and I'm doing everything I can to increase it. We've had only six games at home this year, so it's too early to tell."
McMullen said his only contact with the D.C. Baseball Commission, the group attempting to bring baseball to Washington, has been as a member of the owners' Long Range Planning Committee, the group that deals with franchise relocation and expansion.
He repeatedly put off questions about moving the Astros to Washington, but he also refused to deny it might happen.
"I won't know anything until the end of the year," he said. "We're having a difficult time with promotion of the team right now. But no one person can arbitrarily decide such a thing. You have too many obligations to your city for one thing. A team is a quasi-public service, and I couldn't make that decision [to relocate] alone.
"If you're asking if I think Washington will get a team, the answer is yes. If you're asking me when, the answer is I don't know."
Still, in refusing to be pinned down, McMullen is fueling speculation that he may be serious about moving the team.
And if he is serious, Washington is an obvious place for him to move it. For one thing, his business is headquartered in New York, he lives in New Jersey and he owns the New Jersey Devils of the National Hockey League. He also has ties to the Washington area, having earned a degree in electrical engineering from the Naval Academy in 1940.
Speculation that Washington would get a team for 1987 was increased Monday when Larry King's column in USA Today predicted a National League team, other than the San Francisco Giants, would move here.
King said he could not say which team was interested. But the five NL teams with the most serious financial and/or attendance problems are the Atlanta Braves, Montreal Expos, Pittsburgh Pirates, Astros and Giants.
The Braves appear to be tied to Atlanta because owner Ted Turner is a Georgia native and has his WTBS super-station base there.
The Pirates have just entered into a new corporate-city partnership that apparently binds them to the city for at least five years.
The Expos have severe financial problems, but owner Charles Bronfman is a Canadian native and probably doesn't want the public relations fallout that would go with moving the team from Canada.
McMullen said if he did decide to move the Astros he would do it within the framework of the Long Range Planning Committee. He also said his first phone call would be to Ueberroth, who is known to disfavor franchise shifts unless they are absolutely necessary.
McMullen might also face a problem with the Astros' lease, which is a 40-year deal signed in 1962. A source close to the team called it "iron-clad," but a source near the D.C. Baseball Commission said: "There's no such thing as an iron-clad lease. Now, some are more difficult to break than others. He can always move and say, 'Sue me.' "
McMullen bought the Astros in 1979, and after drawing a franchise record 2.2 million fans in 1980, the team's attendance has declined to 1985's 1.18 million.
In previous interviews, McMullen said his team lost $5 million in 1984. Those losses were offset because he is a partner in the Houston Sports Association, the Astrodome's governing body, and the HSA made $3 million that year.
McMullen has not revealed last year's losses, but they are thought to be similar to those suffered in 1984. Likewise, the Houston economy, so dependent on the Texas oil industry, has been depressed in recent months.
Washington-area fans have heard about possibilities of baseball in the District of Columbia before, especially in 1974 when it appeared the San Diego Padres would move here and in 1979 when the Baltimore Orioles were reported to be considering playing some games at RFK.
This time could be no different. Ueberroth might fight a move, and the city of Houston certainly would fight a move.