Disbelief, even more than joy, is the universal response in the Washington area to the arrival of the Expos.
This past week, baseball world views that had been embraced for a third of a century were suddenly demolished. Assumptions about what was possible -- not in our fantasy lives but in reality -- have been decimated or fundamentally altered. Hopes, in some cases handed down from one generation to another, have materialized so suddenly that they seem like some macabre trick.
When a pattern of facts has been continuously reinforced for 33 years, then the communal story that emerges -- the saga that each of us tells to the other -- eventually carries an almost mythic weight and certainty. The subtext, whether we bring it to consciousness or not, is: We obviously deserve baseball, so we will fight for baseball, but we will not get baseball.
How very strange it feels when, in a matter of weeks, your peculiar form of clinical dementia suddenly becomes officially sanctioned reality. For example, on Friday night, in Camden Yards of all places, I encountered Washington Senators historian and bring-back-baseball zealot Phil Wood. We shook each other's hands even as we also shook our heads.
"Does this feel weird or what?" he said. And that summed it up.
What can Washington baseball fans -- the abandoned, the mocked, the spurned, the poster children for fanatic delusion who are now on the verge of being declared total winners by a knockout -- do to get a grip on ourselves?
My personal, but only partial, solution is to write a few "thank you" notes. As we congratulate those who are responsible, perhaps our delight will grow and the dumb disoriented expression so many of us wear will gradually be replaced with the disgustingly gleeful grin that we deserve.
First, we must thank Peter Angelos. If he hadn't single-handedly demolished his own Orioles franchise over the past seven years with meddling mismanagement, turning his diamond "jewel" into fake zirconium, then baseball moguls would never have risked damaging it. However, once Angelos busted his Camden Yards money machine, there was nothing left for his fellow owners to "save." Attendance said it all. The Orioles went from 45,496 in 1998 to 30,298 in 2003! Putting sand in the hot dogs and Tabasco in the beer wouldn't alienate that many entrenched fans.
Then, Angelos topped himself by becoming Washington's best public-relations flack! Every time he screamed that losing D.C. would disable his franchise, other owners thought, "Wow, Washington must be a fabulous baseball hotbed for so many people to travel so far and pay so much to watch such a crummy team just because they love our sport so much."
So, thanks, Peter. We could never have done it without you.
We also need to show some respect to Commissioner of Baseball Bug Selig, though maybe not an actual "thank you" note. If things had been close to equal, he'd have preferred to put the Expos in Colombia before the District of Columbia. But all his half-wit alternatives to D.C. turned out to be comically untenable. By recent months nobody bothered to take nose counts on those towns anymore. Instead, they just measured the volume of laughter when the names were mentioned.
Portland, Ore. (Snickers.) Las Vegas. (Pete Rose for general manager?) Monterrey. (Well, at least it's close to Pebble Beach.) Norfolk. (Bud, is Leno doing your standup material?) Loudoun County. (Stop it. You're killin' us. Is this really a Letterman List?)
Selig's real contribution to our new team was a piece of ingenuity worthy of a fine CEO. He transformed a problem into a precedent. "We now have the Selig Doctrine for reimbursing existing franchises that are financially damaged by a relocation or expansion," said a highly placed industry source. "It's an important new precedent for the sport."
In the thank you parade, several less-visible people likely will be forgotten but shouldn't be. Paul Wolff and Steve Porter, prominent lawyers who are now minority partners in the Washington Baseball Club, have worked for a decade on D.C. baseball. You name the job, the study or the project related to this quixotic quest and they've had a hand in it. They also helped find and meld the cast of far richer moguls, like Fred Malek, who are now the main players in the WBC, the leading D.C.-backed candidate to buy the Expos.
"I feel very good, very proud for the District. It's been almost 10 years," said Wolff. However, Wolff acknowledged that rival ownership groups, perhaps from all over the country, will now probably "come out of the woodwork" to capitalize on the groundwork that he and others have laid. In baseball's ultimate auction, who knows who'll win?
"We think we will be the group that will end up with the team. After everything we've all done, it'll be upsetting if somebody else gets it," Wolff said. "But, either way, Washington will have a team again."
Perhaps the biggest shock next Opening Day will be the sight of RFK Stadium as a baseball park once more. Thanks in part to Bobby Goldwater, who spent three years as a baseball-for-D.C. point man and RFK refurbisher, RFK will probably far exceed the very low expectations of many. Some parts of the plant are a dump. But for fans who buy a ticket in any of the 30,000 best seats in RFK, you'll have as good a seat for a ball game as fans of the Mets, Twins, Devil Rays, Marlins, White Sox, Tigers or Athletics. Forget fancy restaurants and amenities. The theme-park theory of baseball-as-total-family-experience simply will not exist. That's for M Street. But when you're in your seat watching the game at RFK, you'll say, "This is big league."
Special thanks should go to Mayor Anthony A. Williams for cooking up a ballpark financing plan that has not yet been fully appreciated. Williams has figured out a way to finance a $440 million stadium package based largely on taxing three different categories of affluent people. First, the District's very richest businesses (the top 11 percent in revenue) would be taxed to help pay the interest on stadium bonds. Next, the team's rich new owners must kick in $5.5 million a year, most of which they'd raise by selling naming rights to the park.
The final tax revenue source is the delicious twist that few have figured out. Suburbanites from Virginia and Maryland will make up three-quarters of the crowd. And they'll get nailed for a 10 percent tax on every ticket, beer, trinket and parking spot they buy. This scam -- sorry, urban development concept -- may prove better than a commuter tax.
The District contains less than 20 percent of the entire Washington area population. Unless every D.C. resident is a baseball lunatic (and affluent, too), then the huge majority of Nats fans will be from Virginia and Maryland. So, Joe Fairfax and Mary Bethesda are going to pay a fat chunk of the cost for a ballpark that benefits urban development in one of the poorest parts of D.C.
Why was Williams willing to bid so "high" for a fully funded park? In part, it's because he assumes 2 million fans from outside D.C. will come to a reborn Southeast and spend a ton of cash that will produce D.C. taxes or D.C. business profits.
One final thanks is due to the Washington Baseball Club. A year ago, Williams still did not understand baseball's internal politics or the sport's strong preference to avoid the District, rather than relocate here. Malek and others in his group finally had a feet-to-the-fire meeting with Williams. Baseball was not looking for reasons to come to Washington, as Williams assumed. Instead, it was looking for any reason whatsoever to cover Angelos's back and say, "No."
The Malek group helped convince the mayor that his only chance to get the Expos, and use them as part of his urban development initiatives, was to demand of baseball, "What are your exact terms?" And then stun baseball by meeting them.
The mayor finally understood. Because of the Orioles' proximity and Washington's tainted reputation as the town that lost two teams, a good deal simply wasn't enough. Washington had to decide whether an exceptional deal for baseball was also a superior opportunity for the District. Williams emphatically decided that he believed it was a classic win-win situation.
Now, the District must begin its crucial debate on whether the city agrees with the mayor's vision.
If it does, then our collective sense of unreality, reinforced for 33 years, can finally dissolve forever.