Although the National League Expansion Committee has not announced when it will visit the six cities still competing for the two NL baseball franchises that will begin play in 1993, the group representing Washington has been working hard to develop its game plan for the final stages of the selection process.
Washington Metropolitan Baseball, led by developer John "Chip" Akridge, has hired a consultant to assist its efforts, which include making preliminary plans for the expansion committee's visit -- expected to occur in mid- or late February -- finding additional investors, developing a season-ticket drive and getting acquainted with Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon.
"We are looking at an overall strategy," Akridge said. "But it's very difficult to prepare for the game when you don't know what the game is, much less what the rules are. We don't want to be presumptuous. We don't want to do or say anything that will embarrass us, the city or baseball. We are looking at things we must do, things we might do and things we can do. Then we'll do the things that make sense."
To help in its efforts, the group has hired Tom Hipp, a sports marketing veteran who spent 18 years with Capital Centre before moving into the consulting business in September. He first served as director of marketing for the Washington Capitals. He left Abe Pollin's Centre Group after moving up to president of Centre Sales -- the organization's marketing arm -- and then executive vice president of Ticketron International, of which Pollin is managing partner.
Hipp, who has been working part time for the baseball group for about a week, said he will join on a full-time basis Monday. He said one of his first tasks will be organizing a season-ticket drive. He is scheduled to meet with representatives of area banks Feb. 7 to discuss plans for this campaign and to attempt to put together up-to-date lists of people who opened accounts during the D.C. Baseball Commission's season-ticket drive in 1986 and those who still have active accounts.
"Somehow," Akridge said, "we are going to make every attempt to find those people."
Akridge declined to be specific about when a new campaign would start, but he indicated it likely would be closer to the major leagues' opening day than to the beginning of spring training, which is three weeks away. "The closer the results are to the decision date, the more impact I think we'll have," Akridge said.
Hipp said the group plans to give priority status to people who still have season-ticket accounts. "We owe something to those people," Hipp said. "We will deliver the right priority to them."
Hipp also indicated the group probably will ask ticket seekers to make something more than a token deposit. In 1986 the D.C. Baseball Commmission asked people to deposit an amount equivalent to a full season ticket, one-third season ticket or 10-game plan.
"We want real deposits," Hipp said. "It needs to be meaningful."
Akridge still is seeking investors for the group, and is conducting discussions with more than 20 prospects, six to eight of whom are high-profile, big-money names. The Miami effort is backed by Wayne Huizenga, chief executive officer of Blockbuster Entertainment; Tampa-St. Petersburg is supported by Roy Disney; and Orlando is backed by Rich De Vos, co-founder of Amway Enterprises.
"I'm guardedly optimistic," said Akridge, adding that he remains confident in the financial strength of the investors he has identified previously. "We have a lot of irons in the fire right now. Lots. We've even identified a few zillionaires who are willing to talk to us." He added that most of the possible big-money prospects are not from the Washington area.
Akridge learned the identities of some of the possible investors through Dixon's sports liaison, Henry Hubschman. Hubschman said representatives of several interested parties made unsolicited contacts with him, and he directed them to Akridge.
Akridge said he has not met with Dixon, but Hubschman said she has "made it clear she is willing to help in any way she can." He added that he believed that Dixon's succeeding Marion Barry will help remove "a cloud that hung over the city.
"Removing that cloud may not be enough," Hubschman said. "But failure to move it could have been fatal. We need to let people know that we are putting our problems behind us, and this is a new day."
Dixon's precise role remains unclear. But the city completed one important task in December -- concluding a lease agreement with Akridge's group for RFK Stadium. The lease provides for a 40-year term with options for extensions. It includes escape clauses that would enable Akridge to move the team or sell it to someone who wishes to move it, but there would be significant financial penalties involved.
The group demonstrated its commitment to the city in another provision of the lease. At least 12 hours before every game that the team "reasonably anticipates will not be sold out," the team would provide 1,500 to 2,000 complimentary tickets to the city for distribution to District children, senior citizens and people who qualify for public assistance programs.
In a development this month that may be less promising for Akridge's group, Philadelphia Phillies President Bill Giles replaced Houston Astros Chairman John McMullen on the expansion committee. At last June's quarterly ownership meeting, Giles said: "I'm partial to putting teams in areas where there's not a close proximity" to existing franchises.
The Baltimore Orioles play about 40 miles from Washington, and will be moving closer in 1992 when their new stadium at Camden Yards opens.