A fan's-eye view of baseball in D.C.
If the Expos relocate to Washington D.C., will the team be a success? A local gives his personal take.
Rob Neyer is on vacation this week. Three guest columnists will fill in for him this week with columns on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
I am a serious baseball fan living in a city without a major league team. No, I'm not from Durham or Dubuque or Detroit (or are the Tigers still in the American League?). I am from our Nation's Capital, a town that was once (well, technically twice) a Big League City. More than 30 years after the second version of the Senators fled for the greener pastures of the Dallas Metroplex (having followed their progenitors who departed for the icy pastures of Minneapolis a dozen years earlier), if karma strikes and the Expos relocate to D.C., can Washington reconstitute itself as a Big League City?
I won't speculate on whether Washington (including Northern Virginia) will get a team -- Jayson Stark put it well last week that while Washington is the obvious new home for the Expos, no one can answer the how, what, when or why of relocation. Nor will this be a comparative analysis -- I'm not going to respond to Rob Neyer's promotion of Portland as a viable alternative for the Expos, for as anyone who has been to the City of Roses can tell you, there's no sense in arguing against its beauty or pluck. This is simply the view of a baseball fan who has been stuck in baseball-less Washington, D.C. for nearly a decade.
First, though, let me dispel any misimpression that Washington is, right now, a Big League City. After all, says the non-Washingtonian (what we call a "tourist"), you have the Orioles just up the road. And the Washington Post covers the Birds like a hometown team, don't they? Well, not really on both counts.
While the Orioles might pretend that they are a Baltimore-Washington team (note that for the past 20 years or so, Orioles management has assiduously avoided using the name "Baltimore" anywhere, particularly on the team's uniforms), they are not Washington's team, and are becoming less so as traffic around the area worsens. To attend a week night game at Camden Yards, the Washingtonian must first brave the notoriously bad D.C. traffic, then battle through Baltimore's rush hour, and finally find parking in downtown Baltimore. From downtown D.C., this trip is well over an hour under the best of circumstances. If you leave your desk at 5 p.m. -- and that's considered a half-day for most Washingtonians -- forget about batting practice, you'll be lucky to have time to grab Boog's barbeque and be in your seat before the first pitch at 7.05. Add in the average three-hour game time and the commute back home, and an Orioles game is a six-hour commitment for a D.C. resident. Two, three, maybe four times a year that's fine, but that's just no way for a serious fan to live.
And the traffic is not going to get any better. Orioles owner Peter Angelos would be better off focusing on his Baltimore fan base rather than trying to poach fans from what is becoming a distant city. Put "Baltimore" back on the road grays, bring Cal Ripken back into the fold, and start competing with the Yankees again (believe it or not, it was just six years ago that the Orioles, not the Yankees, were repeat ALCS participants).
There's no real love for the Orioles in Washington, anyway. You hardly see anyone on the street in an Orioles cap, and even when the Orioles did compete with the Yankees, pennant fever never gripped the Capital. I admit, my expectations are high. I came to D.C. after nine years in two of the greatest baseball towns in the country, Boston and Chicago. And while I did not become a member of Red Sox Nation or a Wrigley Bleacher Bum -- I never endured the suffering needed to assume either title -- I've lived through enough seasons in those two cities to know what a real baseball town feels like.
Take local media coverage: The Washington Post doesn't come close to giving the Orioles the kind of coverage the Boston Globe showers on the Red Sox or the Chicago Tribune bestows on the Cubbies. Let's take this Thursday's Post, for example. The Orioles were on page 7 of the sports page (a 1/3-page story on a 6-2 loss to the A's). The Orioles minor league teams got another third of page 7. The front sports page featured previews of a Redskins preseason game, the University of Maryland football season opener, the U.S. Open, and a Tony Kornheiser column on ... Pedro Martinez? (I guess we need to go to Boston to find interesting ballplayers.)
OK, the Orioles aren't exactly bucking for the wild card, but the game story (unaccompanied by any other team analysis you'd find in another paper) came after articles on the WNBA, D.C. United, the World Track & Field Championships, Team USA basketball and boxing. I guess curling and water polo are out of season. Heck, I subscribe to the Washington edition of the New York Times and still get far better baseball coverage. The local radio affiliate treats the Orioles no better, regularly preempting the Birds for other sporting events (and, after Jon Miller was so ungraciously sent packing by the Angelos cabal a few years ago, who can blame it?). In short, while Washingtonians might watch the Orioles when the mood strikes, no one really cares for the Orioles, at least not in the live-and-die manner of fans in Boston, Chicago or New York.
More pertinent, though, is whether Washington can become a Big League City if we're so lucky to inherit the Expos. I won't bore you with statistics of per capita income, expenditures on entertainment, etc.: this is a fan's-eye view. And right now, that view is that Washington isn't even a sports town, much less a baseball town. It's a one-sport town, and that sport is the Redskins. Sure, the Wizards and Capitals got a nice boost from moving in from the suburbs to the well-located and modern MCI Center, but they don't even sell out playoff games. And, unlike the Redskins, which still have a loving following of Hogs despite their flight from D.C. to depressing FedEx Field just off the Beltway in Maryland, the Capitals and Wizards suffer from what may be a unique DC malady: the home-field disadvantage.
One of the wonderful things about living in Washington is that it attracts people from all over the country. Move here from anywhere in the U.S., and you'll be sure to find someone from your home state, if not your hometown. This mix is great for day-to-day living, but it really stinks if you root for (and, I suppose, play for) the Wizards or the Capitals. The problem is, all those people who grew up somewhere else do feel right at home at the MCI Center, wearing their Detroit Red Wings sweaters or their N.Y. Knicks caps without shame and cheering for the visiting team with such unabashed gusto that you'd think you were at Joe Louis Arena or Madison Square Garden. I can't back this up with numbers, but I'd bet that at any Capitals or Wizards game, one-third of the fans are rooting for the home team, one third are rooting for the visiting team, and the other third came just to see the game. And the "visiting" fans are the loudest. By far.
So, what does this mean for a D.C. baseball team? On the one hand, it means that the Expos (more in a moment on the appropriate name of a new D.C. team) should not expect a loving reception from the hometown fans right away (except, perhaps from Montreal expats). On the other hand, fans of the visiting National League teams should show up in droves (witness the increased attendance at Orioles interleague games). More fundamentally, though, most Washingtonians, especially those of us from elsewhere, are likely to embrace this team -- it will be our team, not the team that was already here when we showed up from one of the four corners of the country. We might not turn into Red Sox Nation (that would take at least 85 years without a championship, and even without baseball for more than three decades we're working on only 79 years), but Washingtonians will get behind its team at least as well as the fans of Denver or Arizona have backed theirs.
You'll note that all along I've been referring to a "D.C. team." That's no mistake. While it's possible that a team could be located in nearby Alexandria or Arlington, Virginia, no one on the streets of Washington seriously regards the team as likely to succeed if it's not close-in on the Metro (the city's subway system, which, incidentally, is probably more the pride and joy of Washington than any of its sports teams). Plus, there's not much indication that Northern Virginians even want the team in their backyard. While there's no doubt the team would start play in RFK Stadium, popular sentiment appears to favor a site somewhere in the general downtown area of the MCI Center or Union Station.
So, the team is likely to be the Washington Somethings. And while it's possible that new ownership will repeat the colossal mistake of choosing a meaningless name like the Wizards, both sentiment and the Washington street heavily favor bringing back the Senators (a distant second would be the Nationals, a nice reference to a former Senators nickname and the Expos' current league, but not one that lends itself to an interesting mascot). And, so, what we're left to debate here in D.C. in this non-election year is whether we should bring back the block "W" (worn by the Big Train, Walter Johnson) or the script "W" (which adorned the cap of the last Senators' manager, Ted Williams). I vote for the script "W" -- fitted, in size 7-¼, please.
Steven Schulman, a lawyer practicing in Washington, D.C., has been a contributor to each of Rob Neyer's books and is the creator of Runs Prevented (modified as Adjusted Runs Prevented by Michael Wolverton at www.baseballprospectus.com), a statistic used to evaluate relief pitchers.
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