June 24, 2004

We've Got Expos Relocation Fever!

Today's Musical Selection: "Just Plain Folks" by Lonesome Rhodes

Hello there, everyone! Picking up on a thread I mentioned briefly yesterday, I'd like to discuss the fate of the Montreal Expos. Having grown up in Fedroplex, and being fully aware of our history of near-miss attempts to land a team here over the years, I've developed a certain callused cynicism about the pats on the head MLB periodically issues to keep everyone in the game. But this time, I think MLB is serious. The Expos are going to go somewhere, and soon.

Why do I think this? Because everyone's suddenly rushing forward with new offers. Norfolk recently announced a big season-ticket drive. Portland upgraded its stadium-funding plan. Las Vegas unveiled plans for a big-deal mega-bucks facility. Northern Virginia has promised a fully-funded stadium in the exurban wilderness. And DC just "discovered" a great new waterfront site for its stadium. Coincidence? I don't think so. Considering that this joint step-up has not occurred in any of the previous years that MLB was "on the verge of a decision," I suspect someone's been whispering in some ears out there.

And the time is right. Having dragged out the Expos' fate for three seasons now, they've got all the leverage they're ever going to get. And after this year, the big dogs are likely to drop out of the bidding. Washington's essentially told MLB that it's now or never. Virginia's state funding approval expires at the end of the year (this affects Norfolk as well as Northern Virginia). And Portland's about to lose its stadium-boosting mayor, Vera Katz. (The election is in November, and neither candidate to succeed Katz seems to favor stadium funding.) At that point, MLB will be left deciding between Las Vegas, San Antonio, San Juan and Monterrey. Whoopee.

So where does this leave everyone? San Antonio's mayor has stated publicly that the city isn't ready for a baseball team, so we can safely eliminate them. San Juan isn't exactly setting the world afire in their role as temporary Expos host, so they're probably out. And after a brief spasm of interest in Monterrey, that bid has fallen strangely quiet, so I'd mark them a long shot.

That leaves DC, Northern Virginia, Portland, Norfolk and Las Vegas. I still don't think Vegas is ready. It's a trendy choice, I know, and a lot of players undoubtedly wish MLB would go there. But the funding is mostly mythical, the market's still on the small side, and MLB is definitely skittish about the whole gambling issue, with Pete Rose still floating around out there. Vegas will get a team eventually, I think, but not now. Not until Rose dies or another league (probably the NBA) goes there.

Norfolk puts on a serious face and tries damned hard to look like a real contending town, but I do not believe that MLB could put a team there with a straight face. There just isn't the population base. The corporate presence is so-so, and the market has zero cachet. If the Expos wind up here, MLB is really desperate.

That leaves Washington, Northern Virginia and Portland as the primary competitors. Really, it's a question of Portland vs. the Fedroplex, and then Washington vs. Northern Virginia. Let's look at the bidding.

Demographically, Washington crushes Portland. It's twice Portland's size (in terms of metro area), and it's considerably wealthier. On the other hand, Washington has lost two franchises before (a minor but persistent concern) and there's always the looming specter of Angelos and the Orioles (a big concern). The Mariners have made some noise about Portland cutting in on their turf, but this is a smaller concern.

All things considered, the two cities grade out about equal. So what decides it? Well, let's assume that MLB wants to put teams in both cities eventually. Where do you go first? To the city that's been waiting the longest. Expecially if that city is running out of faith in your promises.

Out-of-towners may not be aware of the history here. We've been teased ever since Bob $hort rode the greed train on down to the Sun Belt in '72. The Padres were so close to coming here in '74 that Topps printed the Padres' cards that year with "Washington" on them. President Ford went to bat for the city in '76, to no avail. We were the alleged leaders in the '87 expansion derby that never happened. We just missed the cut for the '93 and '98 expansions. And the Astros were signed, sealed and delivered to us in '96 before Houston pulled a last-minute stadium offer out of its hindquarters. Add the Expos tease to that, and you'll understand that we're a little pissed. The only other city that was ever jacked around this long was Tampa Bay, and they got their reward (if you want to call it that) last time around. Washington is overdue. Portland can put up with a pat on the head or two. (Notwithstanding the mayoral candidate's supposed anti-stadium stance, I bet they'll come around when they get another offer.)

Want proof? Here you go. Portland is willing to wait for the next thing that comes along. They can afford it... their demographics will only improve with time, and the population still thinks of the baseball chase as a novelty. Portland is new to the game. Washington is the mistress that's heard the "I'm about to leave my wife for you" promise too many times. If MLB wants to get Washington in the league ever, it had better be now.

So if it's the Fedroplex, where do we go? Downtown or the boondocks? The answer should be obvious... downtown is where it's at. But since this is not immediately obvious to some people, let's take a moment to lay out the case for Northern Virginia.

The Fedroplex is a bloated, sprawling area, with a lot of the sprawl spreading in the direction of Virginia. A lot of the area's high-tech business, which is a big draw for young people and families, are located in Northern Virginia. Fairfax County, which borders the stadium site, is one of the area's wealthiest. And the farther away from Baltimore the stadium is, the happier Peter Angelos will theoretically be.

All these points are reasonable. I'd even be willing to concede that the population center of the area is west of DC. But that doesn't mean the Loudoun ballpark plan isn't stupid.

It would be one thing if the stadium was in Arlington, as originally planned. That would have had many of the advantages of the DC plan (Metro accessibility, decent neighborhood pre- and post-game dining options, view of the monuments) while still being a bit more convenient for Northern Virginia. Sticking it at the far end of the sprawl, though, is idiotic. The fact that it's beyond the reach of Metro means fans will be forced to drive there. And traffic in Northern Virginia is horrendous. I leave work at 5:30. I usually don't get home until 6:30 or later. And the stadium site is several miles beyond my house. In order to guarantee arrival for a 7:05 or 7:35 start, I'd probably have to leave work early. Dinner's not an option. This defeats the whole argument for attending a midweek game. I might as well go to Baltimore.

If the stadium was in Loudoun County, midweek attendance is pretty much restricted to people who work in western Fairfax County or beyond. (And let's hope they live there too... good luck trying to get home from the game to, say, Alexandria or Rockville in time for a decent night's sleep.) And it's not the same argument for people trying to get from western Fairfax to a dowtown stadium in time for the game... they'd be driving against traffic, and Metro is an option.

And it's probably a good thing I don't have time to consider having dinner before a game in Loudoun, because the scene out there is dead. Virginia baseball boosters say that development will grow in around the stadium. Sure. Ask the residents of Landover how they enjoyed the boom that surrounded the Capital Centre after it was built. After they stop laughing, you might get an answer.

So there's one man's (admittedly biased) outlook on the situation. If MLB wants to do the most it can with the Expos, bring them to downtown DC. If you don't, and in five years you're looking at crowds of 8,000 a night in Norfolk or San Juan, don't come crying to me.

A quick return to the Jack Ryan business. While all of us hip sophisticates out on the coasts and in the big cities rush to pat ourselves on the back for believing that sex clubs are no big deal, it's worth remembering that not everyone feels the same way. That's what I love about the Midwest. And I especially love the tart, acerbic tone of this editorial from the Peoria Journal Star:

Senate nominee Jack Ryan told a Chicago radio audience Tuesday his "character has been proven by" divorce files that accuse him of pressuring his wife to have sex in public - and telling her crying "was not a 'turn-on'" - since they do not accuse him of adultery.

"There's no breaking of marriage laws" or the Ten Commandments, he said in an interview on WLS-AM. If the worst people can say is that over eight years of marriage he took his wife to places "she felt uncomfortable ... then I think people will say, gosh, that guy's lived a pretty clean life."

Some people may say that, but probably not many in central Illinois, where the average resident is not accustomed to using "sex" and "club" in the same sentence and following it with the phrase "pretty clean life." If what Ryan's ex-wife accuses him of doing is bothersome - some will think it perverted - then the defense he offered Tuesday sounded grotesque.

Isn't that great? Seriously, I love Peoria. Any place where the phrase "perverted" is used unironically, and not to denote approval, is all right with me. I still believe that Ryan's sex life is his own business, but I'm glad there are still places in this country where people are bothered by this stuff. (Incidentally, Ray LaHood, one of the few Republicans to slam Ryan about the sex, represents Peoria. No coincidence, I'm sure.)

Will Saletan scolds the Republicans who wanted to run President Clinton out of town on a rail but are willing to stand by Ryan. They do deserve a scolding, but what about the Democrats would would roast Ryan but wanted Republicans to leave Clinton alone? There's ample room for hypocrisy charges on both sides.

That's all for today. Mush tomorrow!

Posted by Fred at June 24, 2004 05:43 PM
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