The National League Expansion Committee has pledged that one year from now it will designate the two cities selected for membership in its select society, creating a 14-team league as of 1993. To that end it has asked 10 cities for their resume's, an act which must be recognized in part as no more than a put-off, a lame pose at counting out nobody.
But it is generally recognized that only four cities are solid contenders for franchises, the other six being included as window dressing to demonstrate the wide-ranging interests of the Expansion Committee, which in truth had been finding the whole idea of expansion repugnant for so many years.
The four cities that have been described as front-runners are Denver, Washington, Buffalo and Tampa-St. Petersburg, although not in that order. After that, bringing up the rear are Miami, Orlando, Phoenix, Sacramento, Vancouver, and, would you believe, Nashville. What this latter group seems to have in common is emphatic long-shot status.
Denver taxpayers have voted to build a grandiose stadium with which to impress the Expansion Committee. This is a tactic originated by Tampa-St. Pete in its expensive effort to woo favor. But it is Buffalo that has been the most visible in making its pitch, playing largely on its ready funding and the huge attendance figures of its minor league team.
Buffalo, among all the bidders, has been mounting the most extensive and expensive campaign. One of its acts has been to hire the elite Washington public relations firm of Hill & Knowlton Inc. to agressively promote its merits. Hill & Knowlton does not come cheap. In addition to its fancy international clients, H&K has just been hired, for a $3 million fee, to help the Roman Catholic church in its fight on the abortion issue. Buffalo is playing hardball.
But Buffalo, Denver and Tampa-St. Pete, if stripped of all their big pretensions and stadium plans, stand undressed as feeble applicants for a franchise when compared to the superior virtues of Washington as major league territory.
In any confrontation with the other bidding cities, Washington is a standout in the elements that count the most. In the area that has become most important to the networks that underwrite so much of baseball's revenues, Washington is the No. 8 TV market in the United States, dwarfing all its rivals. The same advantage prevails in area population, in personal income (fourth in the U.S.) and an enthusiasm for baseball that can be measured by the willingness of D.C. fans to schlep those fortysomething miles to Baltimore and back, accounting for 25 percent of the Orioles' attendance.
And with the D.C. government committed to providing $30 million for luxury boxes and other enhancements for RFK Stadium, there is no need for apologies on that score. RFK is super as a baseball stadium, and what other bidding cities can boast a Metro system that unloads fans into the very mouth of the stadium, plus all those convenient parking spaces?
It has been in the interest of other bidders to perpetuate the damnable canard that Washington lost two big league teams for lack of fan support. Such an accusation is demolished by the facts. Washington was sold out, in 1960 and in 1971, by two money-grubbing club owners. Were Washington folks tepid about baseball? Consider that in 1944, a last-place Senators team was fourth in American League attendance. And for an update, consider how D.C. fans are swarming to Baltimore, rooting for an alien team merely for a taste of the game.
The question that can be put to the NL Expansion Committee in this matter of a team for Washington is: What are they waiting for?
Especially now that what should be the last obstacle to the selection of Washington, the presence and readiness of the required funds, evidently has been removed. Today, not one but two groups have come forward with money in hand, all it takes to satisfy the Expansion Committee to finance a team in major league style.
All of a sudden, Washington's prospects have brightened. In what previously was a dismaying situation of big talk and little money, the necessary finances have erupted. Banker Bob Pincus and developer John Akridge have come forward with the required resources. And a Northern Virginia group with a mind to building a modern stadium in their sector is boiling to underwrite a team.
If Major League Baseball has any sense of propriety, it will look with favor on a team in Washington for more than all the practical reasons -- the population factor, the number of TV households, the personal incomes necessary for the support of a team, plus the baseball-starvation factor that has been sending so many hundreds of thousands of capital-area fans to Baltimore.
Also, there is an obligation factor that should play a part in the selection. No other city was ever done such dirt by a major league as was Washington, when, at two different times, unfeeling American League owners permitted the pillage of one of their founding cities, which had the ill luck to fall into the hands of grasping club owners who took the money and ran.
In addition to the legitimate claims of Washington on priority as an expansion city, the history of the major leagues' past treatment of the District of Columbia and its fans invites anew, to big league club owners, the question once directed to the infamous Sen. Joe McCarthy: "Have you no decency?"