The Washington area's 33-year effort to acquire a Major League Baseball team -- referred to hereafter as "the Big Tease" -- has produced plenty of agonizing near-misses, but the only thing it has really succeeded in doing is getting a bunch of stadiums built in other cities by using Washington's interest as leverage. You're welcome, Houston. You too, San Francisco, Seattle and all the rest.
That assuredly will not happen this time, not with the Montreal Expos having exhausted all hope of surviving in their current home and now simply playing out one final season in Montreal under Major League Baseball's stewardship before being relocated this offseason, quite possibly to the Washington area.
Baseball's Executive Council will meet today in Milwaukee to hear a report by the relocation committee, which is expected to give the District its stamp of approval. Opposition is expected from Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, and the relocation committee's recommendation is far from the last step in the process. But baseball in the District seems closer to being a reality than it has for years.
Many who have been involved in the area's quest for a team -- and those who have merely observed it with interest -- maintain a healthy dose of cynicism after seeing so many prior hopes squashed. But even those cynics are allowing themselves to believe this might actually be The One.
What has changed? In this case, folks say, the Expos need Washington more than it needs them.
"I've been on every bring-baseball-back-to-Washington committee for 33 years," said longtime D.C. public-relations executive Charlie Brotman, who also was the Washington Senators' public-address announcer from 1959 until their departure in 1971. "The best I could ever give our chances in the past was 50-50, and normally it was 80-20 against us. In my opinion, I think it's more like 80-20 for us now. Feel more optimistic about baseball coming to Washington than I have ever dreamed in the past 33 years.
"The difference this time is that baseball needs us, while we only want them."
When Bobby Goldwater came here from Los Angeles in November 2000 to run Washington's baseball efforts as president of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, he found an atmosphere full of "cynicism, doubt and frustration with the process," he said.
"There have been so many disappointments and close calls," said Goldwater, who stepped down from his post after three years. "I don't think that was an undeserved sentiment. But I think there is a hopeful anticipation and cautious optimism that has been gaining strength the last several weeks."
Washington has been closer -- much closer -- to getting a baseball team than it is today. On May 29, 1973, barely more than a year and a half after the Senators played their final game at RFK Stadium, a banner headline in the Post proclaimed, "Washington Wins a Fresh Start in Baseball."
Giant Food owner Joseph B. Danzansky had a deal in place to buy the San Diego Padres and move them to the District for the 1974 season. Famously, Topps printed baseball cards featuring Padres players with "Washington" on the front where the team name went. But legal issues eventually scuttled the deal, and McDonald's founder Ray A. Kroc moved in and bought the team, keeping it in San Diego.
"I remember vividly my dad coming home in 1973 holding up the newspaper and saying, 'We have a ballclub. The Padres are coming,' " said Phil Wood, a longtime local radio sportscaster and baseball booster. "The more you look into it, the more you can see that Major League Baseball was using us even then. . . .
"I've been through this so many times, I'm at a point where I'm pretty even-tempered about it. If the last 30 years have shown anything, it's that the people who run Major League Baseball are not exactly geniuses."
The area's next-best shot came 22 years later, in October 1995, when Virginia telecommunications executive William Collins III cut a deal with Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane Jr. to purchase the team and move it to Washington.
However, MLB made it clear the team would not be permitted to move until McLane had exhausted all possibilities for survival in Houston. Faced with the threat of losing the team, voters soon approved a new stadium -- which is now known as Minute Maid Park -- and the Astros stayed.
"The city [of Washington] could not have come any closer," Collins, who is still seeking a team for Northern Virginia, said yesterday. "We had negotiated for two months. The agreement was completely in place. And Drayton took it to the executive committee and they said, 'You can't just pick up your team and move it.' The stadium deal [in Houston] wound up passing by three-tenths of one percent."
Asked how many stadiums he helped get built in other cities, Collins chuckles and starts rattling them off.
"Well, I don't know that we were completely responsible for them," he said, "but we were certainly used as a foil: If the team didn't get the stadium, they'd move to the Capital area. Certainly Houston. Seattle -- it became a major issue out there. San Francisco. Pittsburgh. Tampa Bay and Phoenix -- if only because we competed against them in the expansion process [in 1995]. Milwaukee, I would guess."
In between the Padres and Astros teases, there were expansion teases in 1976, 1991 and 1995, with MLB adding two franchises each time -- none in Washington. For the past three years, the focus of the Big Tease has been the Expos, who were taken over by the league's 29 other owners following the 2001 season with the intent to "contract" -- or eliminate -- them along with the Minnesota Twins. But when those plans fell apart amid various legal challenges, MLB was stuck with the Expos and chose to hang on to the team and lose money in Montreal, rather than move the team and sell it.
"There wasn't a stadium plan in place [in the Washington area] three years ago. There wasn't a financing plan in place," said Marc S. Ganis, chairman of Sportscorp Ltd., a Chicago sports-consulting firm. "Although it's been an extended process, it's one that was necessary. Even as we sit here today, there are uncertainties about the D.C. plan. But there are fewer uncertainties about that one than there are concerning the other municipalities."
Every time the Big Tease comes and leaves without consummation, everyone vows never to trust it again. "There will come a point in time," a dejected Collins told The Washington Post in September 1996, after the Astros announced their new stadium deal, "when none of us has any interest in pursuing it anymore."
And this time?
"If it doesn't happen now," said Wood, "it's never going to happen. Because if it doesn't happen, Major League Baseball is basically saying the whole relocation process is a fraud and they need Washington as a carrot to dangle over other cities to get stadiums built."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.