Washington's Flirtation With Astros Could Be More Than Just Another Tease Once again, Washington is on the make. In its latest baseball romance, it is making goo-goo eyes at Houston's Astros, giving owner John McMullen the come-hither look and cooing the feasibility of a rapturous alliance.
Washington's passion for baseball, unrequited since the desertion of 1971, is yet undimmed. And in its pursuit of a franchise, Washington has been a shameless hussy.
Twelve years ago it flirted with San Diego's unhappy Padres, and was repulsed. It has since wooed the San Francisco and Pittsburgh franchises, and wherever else it detected domestic quarrels.
No luck, anywhere.
For a long time it honeyed up to Peter Ueberroth, the commissioner, and the National League, on the slightest indication that an expansion franchise was possible. What a waste of honey, before discovering that Ueberroth and the NL, combined, were an unconscionable tease.
The latest love interest in Houston is something of a variant, however, and could merit some genuine excitement. This time, the startling truth is that the first move, glory be, was made by owner McMullen, who, according to The Washington Post's informed sources, has begun casting an eye at the charms of the Nation's Capital.
It is another case of Washington attempting to feed on another town's miseries. McMullen is unhappy with Astrodome attendance, saying Houston fans haven't supported the Astros in a style big enough to meet baseball's steadily inflating payrolls. McMullen says he lost $5 million last season, $10 million the past two years. Reason enough to get out, other baseball capitalists would agree.
Whether Washington would generate all the attendance McMullen needs is a topic to be deferred at this point, except to point out that no great outpouring would be needed to eclipse Houston's attendance records.
There are negatives to the whole idea that McMullen would move. The first suspicion may be that he is resorting to an old ploy, threatening to move his team in order to get more stadium and other concessions from Houston. It is a gimmick that has worked for other owners in other cities.
The Astros' lease on the Astrodome, with 19 years left, appears to be a forbidding item and could deter any move. But give corporate people time to handle deferred costs of as much as a million a year and for them it is no sweat. The New York Yankees are reported to have a $30 million deferred payment load on their payroll, and George Steinbrenner is unperturbed by such down-the-road obligations. However, lease-breaking is never a pretty business, although one Houston official says it is quite possible.
Talk of the obstacle of approval of a move, the needed three-fourths vote of the National League, and the majority in the American League, is more rhetoric than reality. It is to be emphasized that McMullen is a baseball insider, not a guy trying to break into the club. There is great sympathy for club owners who have lost $10 million in two years.
The favorable votes of the Yankees and Mets appear assured for another reason. They would want to keep the Astros out of nearby New Jersey. The New Jersey Sports Authority, eager for more status than having the New York football Giants and Jets at the Meadowlands, is a formidable group, with money unlimited, and a blank check from the state to bring in a ball team and damn the cost. It is a lusting group.
John McMullen happens to be a New Jersey resident with substantial interests there, but it may be significant his baseball interest is directed toward Washington. His friends also underscore the volatility of the man, who once owned part of the Yankees and said goodbye to George Steinbrenner over a difference of opinion; who fired his Astros general manager two weeks after getting into the NL playoffs, and who has been quoted as saying in 1969, "I've got to be moving, doing things."
Ordinarily, it would be the worst timing for any city to entice the Astros. That team is now leading the NL West, much to the league's astonishment. But, alas for Houston, their lofty perch has not been attended by a big climb in attendance.
A point is also being made that Washington may not have a stadium fully ready by 1987, that the 10,000 football seats would not be available. Twaddle. RFK Stadium would still boast 42,000 seats for baseball, which, if regularly filled, would set a major league attendance record.
Like any active capitalist, John McMullen knows about Washington. But, like so many of them, he may not yet have been privy to its power lunches, or fully sampled its "access" and its social importance; its special charms that can be so appealing to men who have made it elsewhere and have not yet topped off their careers with the distinction of being an eminence in the Nation's Capital. It can be seductive.