If not for Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption, the Astros might be celebrating their first World Series title this week with a parade along D.C.’s Constitution Avenue, not in downtown Houston. They also might not be called the Astros.
In 1995, Northern Virginia, Orlando, Tampa-St. Petersburg and Phoenix were the four finalists for two expansion MLB franchises to begin play in 1998. The league chose Tampa-St. Petersburg and Phoenix in March, prompting the Northern Virginia investor group led by telecommunications executive William L. Collins III to explore other ways of bringing a team back to the area for the first time since the Senators left to become the Texas Rangers in 1972.
During the 1995 all-star break, Collins began discussions with Astros chairman Drayton McLane about buying Houston’s franchise, which had reportedly lost about $65 million in three years. A few months later, Collins’s group had a deal in place to pay $150 million for the Astros. The team would play two or three seasons at RFK Stadium, beginning in 1996, while a 45,000-seat stadium was built near Dulles Airport.
In October, one D.C. official told The Post that there was “about an 80 percent chance” of an MLB team playing at RFK in the spring. Engineering work, paid for by Collins, was underway for the roughly $8 million in renovations that would be required to prepare RFK for baseball upon completion of the Redskins’ season.
“An agreement in principle has been made,” George L. Barton IV, chairman of the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority, told The Post on Oct. 25. “There has been a handshake.”
With the news that a deal was close, Post columnist Thomas Boswell imagined the possibility of baseball returning to D.C.:
Last year, there was no World Series. Next year, the Series might be played in RFK Stadium. Life sure is ironic. Or baseball is a mess. Take your pick.
Here they come now, the Washington Astros: Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Dave Magadan, Derek Bell, Doug Drabek, Shane Reynolds, Greg Swindell and Darryl Kile. They missed the National League’s wild card berth by one game in 1995. They were the second-best hitting team in the league with above-average pitching, too. They’re as legitimate on paper as the Orioles. On the field, they were better.
So, why shouldn’t the ‘Stros move to Northern Virginia, play for a couple of years in RFK while their new park gets built near Dulles, sign a few free agents with Bill Collins’s big bucks and go to the World Series next year? Stranger things happen. The Colorado Rockies made the playoffs. The Cleveland Indians may be world champs. Why, the Bullets might get a correct diagnosis.
You’re laughing at me so hard right now that you’ve probably knocked your coffee into your corn flakes, haven’t you? “He’s been writing about this new Nats team that isn’t coming for 20 years. He’s finally gone around the bend.”
This wasn’t the first time since the Senators left that the District appeared close to landing a replacement team. In 1973, the San Diego Padres were so close to moving to D.C. that they had uniforms made. The deal fell apart after the city of San Diego threatened to sue Padres owner C. Arnholt Smith, who eventually sold to the team to McDonald’s mogul Ray Kroc.
During the 1995 season, acting MLB commissioner Bud Selig made it clear to McLane that he preferred he sell the team to local buyers. Furthermore, any relocation would have to be approved by eight of the 14 American League teams and 11 of the 14 National League teams, and McLane’s fellow owners weren’t keen on the idea of moving a team out of the Houston market.
The Astros turned out to be another tease for D.C. baseball fans. While McLane had a deal in place with Collins, he knew he didn’t have the support of his fellow owners, who had the power to veto a proposed move to D.C. On Nov. 10, McLane announced that the team would remain in Houston through the 1996 season.
“If we can’t achieve financial success and we can’t continue to move forward, then the team needs to go somewhere where it can be supported and can be appreciated and where the fans are very excited about it,” he said.
“We certainly had a willing buyer,” Collins said during a news conference at Tysons Corner. “I believe we had a willing seller. However, Drayton McLane ran into difficulties in trying to comply with Major League Baseball’s relocation procedures and guidelines. … There is no other way to characterize this except to say that our efforts to return the national pastime back to the national capital area have been sidetracked. Hopefully, it’s only a temporary setback.”
In September 1996, McLane, who sold the Astros in 2011, signed an agreement for a $265 million, retractable-roof stadium project that would keep the franchise in Houston. It would be another nine years before D.C. got a team.
“It is a long and winding road,” Michael T. Scanlon, Jr., executive vice president of the Collins group, told The Post after the Astros’ stadium deal was announced. “This is just one turn in the road. [Buying the Astros] is something we did not count on happening. It is something we hoped for. But we go on.”
(Thanks to @reshmanuel.)