September 18, 2004

A Call to Arms

An Open Letter

To: Commissioner Bud Selig and the Powers that Be at MLB
From: Mediocre Fred, long-suffering Washington fan

Dear Gentlemen,

So, it looks as though you might finally be serious. George Solomon's column in the Post tells us that the protracted dance between your guys and my city concerning the Expos is reaching its endgame. Sources are saying that the two sides have drafted a memorandum of understanding, and that you, Commissioner Selig, are preparing to call a meeting of the Executive Council to discuss your findings. Reportedly, a decision could come as soon as next week.

I suppose I should be dancing with joy, shouldn't I? The team I've waited my whole life for is reportedly weeks or even days away from becoming reality. My fondest wish, so close to happening. I ought to be ecstatic, an outside observer might say. Perhaps you would think so yourselves.

But I'm not ecstatic. I can't be, I won't be, not even if the rumors are true. Why? Because I have calluses on my soul from all the times before when Washington "had" a team. Like a constantly-cuckolded spouse, there's no room any more for hope and optimism.

You want me to get all fluttery just because a little birdie's whispering that we "have" the Expos? Please. I mean, hell, we "had" the Padres in '74. We "had" the Astros in '96. And we "had" expansion teams in '87, '91 and '95. President Ford went to bat for us in '76, to no avail. We were dumped by that racist bastard Calvin Griffith and then by that money-grubbing con man Bob $hort. And we've "had" the Expos four or five times already. We used up our lifetime supply of faith years ago.

All this isn't to say I don't want the Expos. Of course I do. But Solomon's story and similar vibrations we've been hearing on the grapevine lately are a tease. It's like looking in your parents' closet on December 21 and seeing that bike you've always wanted. It's a good sign, and it's tempting to get excited. But if you start celebrating and acting like it's yours, it turns out the bike was actually for your brother or your cousin or the kid down the street. You don't celebrate it until -- and if -- that bike is under the tree on Christmas Day.

I don't know what goes on behind closed doors -- no one at the top of baseball's hierarchy is willing to talk on the record about Washington's standing -- and I don't know how you really feel about all this. But I want to tell you, as a lifelong Washingtonian and baseball fan, how we feel here. If you're not aware of fan sentiment in the Fedroplex, you ought to know.

Commissioner Selig, you know what it's like to lose a team. You were a teenager when the Braves to town and became the toast of baseball for a while, and you were a young adult when they took the team away, bound for a sweetheart stadium deal in lifeless, baseball-clueless Atlanta. You spearheaded the drive to get a team back. You dealt with the White Sox's flirtations, then the last-minute move of the Pilots in '70. You understand the pain of watching your team leave. But Milwaukee was only without baseball for four seasons. Four years is nothing like 33 years. The fact that we're still bothering at all shows how deep our love for the game is, no matter what the skeptics say.

Time and again, when Washington's baseball bids failed, there was always a what-if to ponder, something that had prevented our pitch from being as good as it could be. What if Washington wasn't famous (or infamous) for being a majority-black city? What if we weren't the Murder Capital? What if Marion Barry wasn't mayor? What if the bid was based downtown, instead of in Virginia? What if the stadium deal was a little sweeter? What if we had a legitimate ownership group? There was always something, a nagging concern that left us wondering when baseball passed us over for a frankly inferior city, like Miami or Tampa Bay.

But not this time. All the nagging questions have been resolved. We're no longer the murder capital. We're still a majority-black city, but it no longer matters so much, and we have majority-white Northern Virginia around to set unreconstructed racist minds at ease. We have the best ownership candidates we've ever had, in the Malek group. The best stadium sites are actually downtown, not out among the tech barons and country squires in Virginia. We have stadium sites and financing plans that MLB can love. Barry has been reduced from mayor to gadfly councilman, and no longer hold sway over the city's affairs. In his place we have Anthony Williams, a dorky technocrat who's short on charisma and natural magnetism, but long on competence. The old caricature of drug-ridden, corrupt Washington is known to be a fiction.

Not only that, but conditions in baseball are better now for a Washington team than they've ever been. There's no Western city that's unjustly without a team (like Denver in '91 and Phoenix in '95), and the Florida fad that gave us the Marlins and Devil Rays has fizzled. Old-line cities that supported their minor-league teams, like Buffalo and Louisville, are no longer factors in today's media-market-driven universe. The new Western boomtowns, like Vegas and Portland, are promising but not ready just yet. And baseball's not quite ready yet to cross the Mexican or Caribbean frontier. In short, there's no reasonable alternative to Washington. And in the Expos, you have a team of vagabonds that has no real home to go back to. They've reached the point where a decision needs to be made now. They can't wait five or ten years for Vegas and Portland to be ready. They can't even wait for another shot at contraction in '06. It's got to happen now.

I'm sure you know all this. And of course, you also know about Baltimore, and its attorney owner Peter Angelos. We know how he's tried to claim the Washington market as his own, eliminating all evidence of the Orioles' Baltimore ties from the park and producing reams of fishy statistics purporting to show that the Orioles depend on the D.C/northern Virginia area for the health of their franchise. And for years, the Orioles' objections have provided cover for MLB when we were rejected. "Don't turn one strong franchise into two weak ones," you told us. And we countered with statistics of our own showing that Baltimore didn't depend on us to survive, but the doors were already closed. We passed the statistics around among ourselves in the empty boardroom, while you put your arm around Angelos and said you had his back.

But now, conditions are better than they've ever been. Your need for Washington is at its highest just when we're at our readiest. Finally, our argument has an audience. And Angelos is suddenly having a hard time finding friends for his market-protecting argument.

Let's level with each other, shall we? You need Washington right now. The Expos have to go somewhere. It's time to end that charade, and DC's the only real option. It's okay to admit it; we promise not to blackmail you with it.

And you know what? We need you too. Or at least we really want to. You'd think that as badly as you've treated us over the years, we'd have long since told you to go to hell. Maybe we're idiots for not having done so.

But dammit, we love the game. Baseball means everything to us. Many of us would give years off of our lives just to see Opening Day in our hometown. Because we're proud of our city. We've taken our lumps and weathered the ridicule in the national media, but we're proud of what we've become. We're proud of being the economic engine for the region. We're proud of the nightlife in Adams Morgan, and the vibrant downtown (nothing like the '70s), and the urban renewal in places like Petworth and the Anacostia waterfront, and our thriving suburbs too. We're proud of being the cradle of democracy, and we want to see the president throwing out the first ball where he belongs, in his backyard. We're proud of our beautiful cherry blossoms in the spring, and we'd love them all the more if they were a sign that baseball's coming again. We're proud of Thomas Boswell, possibly the greatest baseball scribe in the country, and wish he could be writing about the exploits of our team. We've learned to live without baseball in town -- what else can we do? -- but we don't really like it. Life isn't as rich without a team in town. We're not afraid to admit it.

Now that we're being honest with each other, if there was any justice in this world we'd get the team we deserve and everything would be hunky-dory. But it's hard for us to believe in justice any more. 33 years without baseball isn't our idea of justice.

So I'm not asking you for justice. I don't dare suggest that we deserve a team, even though we do. No, that's not how it works, I know.

All I'm asking is for resolution. Because this is our last, best shot. I know it, we in Washington all know it, and I suspect you know it too. The stars have never been in alignment like this, and they probably won't ever be again. The election of baseball-funding opponents to City Council for next term means that we'd have a hell of a time getting a stadium after this year. The next mayor will probably be less baseball-friendly. And even if we elect baseball backers again a few years down the line, by then Portland and Vegas and God knows where else will have much stronger cases than they do now, and we'll be back to bridesmaid status. If it doesn't happen now, it never will. We know this.

And I have a special message for you, Commissioner Selig. Having no local team to root for, I picked up an affection for the Brewers during my misspent youth, an affection I've never lost, through thin and thinner. When you became commissioner, I was perhaps the only person outside of your immediate family not to start booing. For years, I've defended you to my friends, who called you "Clueless Bud" during the '94 strike and didn't get much warmer toward you in the aftermath. I even defended you during the contraction fiasco, which would strain the faith of any fan.

At first, I defended you because of my loyalty to you as Brewers owner. But over time, I came to admire you as a leader of the sport. I believe you learned your lesson in the '94 strike; you learned the perils of taking an uncompromising hard line, and you learned the folly of negotiating through the press. You, the owners, and the game took a real shellacking. Some thought you'd never recover. Even when the game started returning to health, everyone credited Cal Ripken, or Sosa and McGwire, or the Red Sox and Cubs, everyone but you. But I knew better.

I told my friends that you're like Columbo; you look like an unimpressive bumbler who couldn't manage a McDonald's, much less a major sports league. And so when the public image of negotiations looks like a chaotic, anarchic mess, everyone assumes that you're steering things into a ditch. But just like my favorite detective, behind the scenes you're piecing things together and making it happen out of the spotlight. Then, when you make the announcement at the last minute, everyone wonders how it could have possibly worked out. I'm convinced that the 2002 labor negotiations followed this exact pattern.

And this whole Expos business looks like the same kind of deal. You had to get Jeffrey Loria out of the ownership role -- no one wanted to reward his incompetent stewardship by handing him a plum market -- so you worked out this franchise-trading business that put him in Florida and John Henry in Boston. Everyone screamed and hollered and called you incompetent or corrupt, but you stood your ground. (And I notice that very few fans in Florida or Boston are complaining now.)

Once the team was in MLB's hands, you still knew there was no way to overcome the Angelos resistance, so you did a bold and seemingly crazy thing: left the team in MLB's hands. Had you sold it immediately, you probably would have received a low price, and the new owner would have either had to try to make it work in Montreal or braved the Angelos opposition to try to go into DC. Not a good idea.

The split-schedule, another seemingly stupid idea, had a double purpose: It allowed you to field-test the idea of Caribbean expansion, and it made the Expos' plight all the more desperate. A team owned by Jeffrey Loria drawing 10,000 a night in Montreal might garner sympathy, but that wouldn't spur action. A team with two hometowns, with a bunch of exhausted and angry players, whose mounting losses were bankrolled by the other 29 teams is a problem demanding a quick solution.

But Angelos wasn't going to be so quickly outmaneuvered. If not for Angelos and his unyielding opposition, one season of split scheduling would have done it. But you knew he wasn't going to go away. So you concocted this relocation derby, with every conceivable city involved. Anyone with a remotely viable argument for supporting a team was invited to pitch their case. And in a particularly diabolical twist, you put Angelos on the Executive Committee, the inner circle of decision-making in Major League Baseball. It sure looked like you were going out of your way to stop Washington. Angelos thought so. And a lot of fans here did too.

But I tried to convince them that this was strategic on your part. If Angelos thought you were looking out for him and would never let Washington get a team, he wouldn't bother to go looking for allies to stop it. And so you did everything you could to convince everyone that the relocation process was clanking along, and something would happen, eventually, but we don't know when.

So Washington got mad. We felt our opportunity slipping away, and that gave us the collective will to roll out the big guns and putting our best offer out there. And you went about quietly lining up support, making sure that everyone could see that Washington was the only real option. And now, seemingly out of the blue, it all looks like a done deal. It's too late for Angelos to go twisting arms. Because I know, as I've told everyone, that you never bring something up unless you're absolutely sure you have the votes for it.

I've been pitching this case, and my friends think it's plausible. But they point out that it doesn't mean a damn if the deal doesn't get done. And they're right. In the end, either you close the deal or you don't. I want to believe that you can do it, Commissioner. I'm ready to start calling you "Commissioner Columbo." But I need to see the results. We all do.

So don't leave us hanging. This has been dragged out long enough. Since we know that this is essentially our last shot at a team, give us a quick resolution. Give us the team or don't, but spare us further suffering. 33 years is long enough. Red Sox and Cubs fans may disagree, but we'd give anything to be in their shoes. At least they have a team to follow. We wouldn't care if Aaron F-ing Boone knocked our pennant dreams over the left-field wall every year. As long as home is here.

Mediocre Fred

Posted by Fred at September 18, 2004 10:39 PM

Don't forget the White Sox fans when it comes to suffering -- one AL pennant in 85 seasons. If that isn't cursed, I don't know what is.

See you at RFK in '05...I hope.

Posted by: Vincent at September 20, 2004 12:43 AM

Hi Vincent,

Thanks for the comment. And I absolutely did not mean to slight White Sox fans for suffering. I think they've suffered just as much as BoSox and Cubs fans, only they're not famously tragic, so no one cares. I absolutely acknowledge and respect the suffering of White Sox fans.

Here's hoping I'll catch you at RFK... I'm keeping the faith.

Posted by: Mediocre Fred at September 20, 2004 01:32 AM
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