Las Vegas Expos not such a longshot
Major League Baseball might be warming up to the idea of relocating its vagabond franchise to the desert.
Pete Rose knows better than anyone that baseball fears the specter of gambling above all else -- more than steroids, more than amphetamines or cocaine, more than corked bats or doctored balls, more than a commissioner's apparent conflict of interest.
Last week, Rose autographed copies of his book in a casino, an appearance that will probably hurt his chances of reinstatement more -- in the eyes of baseball -- than if he had been convicted of failure to pay child support.
This recent reaffirmation of gambling as a baseball evil comes at a time when Las Vegas is among five cities being seriously considered as a possible relocation site for the Montreal Bohemians, the game's traveling road show. The other areas for relocation discussed at the owners' meetings last week were Washington/Northern Virginia, Norfolk/Hampton Roads, Portland, Ore., and Monterrey, Mexico, according to a high-ranking major league executive.
A group from Las Vegas made a presentation to the relocation committee, and despite baseball's inherent concern about gambling, there is a prevailing line of reasoning that the place is very interesting: It's a city flush with disposable income.
Las Vegas has been home to minor league teams for the last 21 years, successfully, in spite of the fact that the park is located on the outskirts of the city, rather than among the casinos. A new ballpark might be built next to Bally's, easily accessible to anyone who has won a few bucks or hasn't lost everything.
Don Logan, the president and general manager of the Las Vegas Triple-A team, the 51s, doesn't believe the area is yet prepared to support a major league team. Las Vegas is the fastest growing city, adding 5,000 residents a month. But the city has only 1.5 million permanent residents, it ranks a weak 51st among television markets, and unless sand dunes can suddenly morph into season-ticket holders, there are virtually no outlying communities to sustain the franchise.
"This is a 24-hour town," Logan said, "and because 71-72 percent of the work force is either involved directly by the casino industry or supported by it, at any given time 25 percent of the population is working or sleeping."
The worst scenario that could occur, Logan says, is that Las Vegas might win the Expos and then draw lightly in the first year, before a new park opened -- say attendance of 1.6 million -- and then decline steadily. In time, Logan believes, Las Vegas will be large enough for major league baseball -- and would strongly support baseball, more than it would ever support a team from the NFL or NBA or NHL.
But there is a wild card working for Las Vegas. Probably more than any other team, a Las Vegas franchise would benefit from tourist industry dollars: the Triple-A Travel Agency, for example, could sell Vegas packages that would include three tickets to a series against the Yankees, or the Diamondbacks, or the Dodgers.
And almost all the visitors to Vegas look for opportunities to step away from the slot machines or crap tables for a few hours, which is why so many shows and performers thrive there.
The stigma that Major League Baseball might have once attached to Las Vegas has worn away, says a baseball official. Gambling is far more widespread than 20 years ago, he notes, mentioning the reservation and riverboat casinos and online betting. Baseball would probably ask for and receive assurances from Las Vegas that the major league games not appear on the books.
"I think that there has been an unspoken concern," said Logan. "But the proliferation of gambling around the country has eased concerns, if it hadn't already eased before. The [gambling] industry is extremely well-maintained. It has to be perceived as legitimate to succeed."
Baltimore owner Peter Angelos has fought expansion into Washington and Northern Virginia, arguing that a franchise placed there would irreparably damage the Orioles' attendance. And while Angelos was once a pariah among other owners, for his stance against replacement players during the strike of 1994-95, he has steadily increased his influence among his brethren, serving on the negotiating committee for the labor talks in 2002 and recently gaining a spot on the owners' elite executive committee.
And there are owners who have long been leery of Angelos; they presume that if they attempted to move a franchise into Washington, they would have to engage Angelos -- an extraordinarily successful lawyer -- in a protracted legal fight on his home turf.
In the opinion of a top major league official, Washington "is the most natural place to go. But when you factor in Angelos and the concerns there, the place that makes the most sense to me is Las Vegas."
What about the appearance of housing a franchise in Gambling Central, U.S.A.? "Not an issue anymore," said the executive.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.