Griffith’s answer may have been ugly, but in a sense, it wasn’t unusual. Since time immemorial, owners of major league baseball teams have blamed others for their teams’ financial failures. Griffith slighted the fans; when the District lost a second incarnation of the Senators in 1972, owners of that franchise cited the city’s refusal to pony up public funds for a new stadium, an unusual practice at the time, though common today. In the 30 years since baseball left Washington, assorted advocacy groups, civic organizations, business alliances, and even lawmakers, have lobbied to return a major league franchise to the nation’s capital. And for 30 years, their efforts have fallen short.
It looks like that’s about to change. Economically, conditions are ripe for baseball to return to D.C. It’s the last big metropolitan area without a baseball team, and, contrary to press reports, at least one existing franchise will probably be looking for a new home soon. Politically, too, the fix is in for D.C. Owners are fearful that Congress may take away a linchpin of their profits: baseball’s legal monopoly. The best way to maintain this status is to give Washington lawmakers a team for their city. Moreover, the Beltway power brokers who’ve been working for years to bring back a major league team now have the ultimate closer: former owner, and current president, George W. Bush.
If this were a Hollywood movie, the script would call for Griffith’s original Senators, the Minnesota Twins, to return to D.C. A likelier scenario involves relocating the Montreal Expos. By any measure, the team is foundering. Its home attendance last season was just 619,451, the lowest figure in franchise history and less than half of that drawn by the runner-up, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. To put this in perspective, the Seattle Mariners drew 677,672 fans—just during the month of June.
Readers of the sports page probably saw the stories last month about how baseball owners had voted to disband two teams before next season (and how the moribund Expos are sure to be one of them). But if they were discerning, readers also should have noted that the owners’ vote to “contract” major league baseball was not binding and probably requires the players’ union to agree to it. Translation: Owners aren’t really going to fold two teams. It’s just a bargaining ploy for the commissioner’s office to use against the Players Association when they sit down this month to negotiate a new collective-bargaining agreement. A thumbnail analysis of the costs of contraction—buying out the owners, meeting legal fees, paying off stadium leases and entire minor-league systems, just for starters—shows that the money saved would be negligible, to say nothing of the public-relations disaster for organized baseball and the difficulty of getting it past the players’ union. It’s a bluff.
So the question becomes not “whether” the Expos will relocate, but “where”? The smart bet is Washington. The Beltway region is the seventh-largest media market in the country and, by some measures, boasts the highest median household income. So, despite the fact that two earlier Washington Senators teams sought greener pastures, few doubt that D.C. is a perfectly viable market for major league baseball. Not surprisingly, baseball commissioner Bud Selig’s relocation envoy Corey Bush has made a number of trips to the region.
What D.C. also boasts that competitors such as Charlotte, Las Vegas, and Portland, Oregon, do not is the political advantage that inescapably resides in the nation’s capital. More than campaigning, kissing babies, and lengthy recesses, Congress loves baseball. And while that’s true of most red-blooded Americans, lawmakers have a special reason to want a team. Imagine congressmen being able to give important constituents tickets to a game at a brand-new field next to RFK stadium (the most likely site) that boasts a view of the Capitol Dome over the center field fence. Now imagine lobbyists slipping lawmakers those tickets. (Don’t underestimate the lure of free tickets: In 1999, congressional ethics committees decided that the $98 club seats at Washington’s MCI Center—home to the NBA’s Wizards and NHL’s Capitals—could be “reinterpreted” to cost $49.50 if lawmakers forfeited parking and waitress service, so that lobbyists could slip them tickets without running afoul of the $50 cap on gifts to congressmen.)
Congressmen also enjoy a power the rest of us lack: They can make baseball owners quake in their loafers. The key to their power is baseball’s anti-trust exemption. In 1922, in one of its more dubious decisions, the Supreme Court ruled that Major League Baseball games do not constitute interstate commerce, and thus are not subject to the Sherman Antitrust Act, an exemption never extended to any other professional sports league. For decades, Major League Baseball’s immunity has allowed teams to operate as a cartel, primarily because, unlike other leagues, teams can’t move without group approval, protecting owners’ economic territory. This confers a litany of financial advantages upon entrenched owners. Few legal scholars today defend the court’s decision. But the burden of repealing the exemption lies with Congress, and Congress has never seen fit.
But its patience was sorely tested in 1972, when the second incarnation of the Washington Senators uprooted to Arlington, Texas, to become the Texas Rangers. Angry lawmakers called for an inquiry, and a House investigating committee recommended that baseball’s antitrust immunity be repealed. Fortunately for the owners, the House never acted on that recommendation. But in 1998, after heavy lobbying by the baseball players’ union, Congress took a step toward limiting the exemption by unanimously passing the Curt Flood Act, which partially ended the owners’ monopoly by giving players the same labor protection enjoyed by other professional athletes. This spooked the owners. So did subsequent attempts by Republicans (Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania) and Democrats (Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon) to limit their ability to finance new stadiums with taxpayer money. Baseball isn’t taking any chances. It now spends more money lobbying Congress than all other professional sports leagues combined.
But the owners know that lobbying is no guarantee of protection. Indeed, the day after owners voted to fold two teams, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) announced plans to introduce legislation to end baseball’s monopoly. Now, perhaps the only way for owners to protect their monopoly is to move a franchise to the Washington area. Lawmakers don’t say this openly. Instead, they couch their demands in more respectable terms. Just last month, for instance, Virginia’s senators George Allen and John Warner, and three Virginia congressmen, wrote to Selig calling on him to relocate a team to the region fast. They drew upon the events of September 11 for a handy, if tasteless, rationale: “Baseball will provide a boost to the region’s morale as well as stimulate sectors of the regional economy that have felt the greatest impact from the terrorist attack.”
The Virginia delegation would love to house a baseball team in a sought-after new stadium across the Potomac in Northern Virginia. District big shots, of course, would prefer the team to come to the city. Since D.C. has no voting members in Congress, the arm-twisting has fallen to a group of D.C. businessmen that includes AOL co-founder James Kimsey and Fannie Mae CEO (and former Clinton OMB director) Franklin Raines. The net worth of this group of potential owners: $2 billion.
At the group’s head stands that classic Washington insider, Fred Malek, forever to be remembered for his role in the Watergate scandal. Although deputy director of the infamous Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) in the early 1970s, he escaped prosecution, but couldn’t avoid political exile. Malek returned in the late 1980s as deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee, only to find his past still dogging him. When it came to light that he had compiled a list of Jews working for the Bureau of Labor Statistics—the “Jewish cabal” that obsessed Nixon—Malek was forced to resign. He kept busy through tours of executive duty with Marriott and Northwest Airlines, and as the manager of the Bush-Quayle campaign in 1992.
Malek now heads Washington Baseball Club LLC, the organization supplying the campaign’s muscle. As he puts it: “We’ve got the money, the people behind the effort, the site [for a new stadium], the backing of the City. We’ve got the resources to get this done.”
Of course, every city in America that wants a baseball team has a similar committee of heavyweights angling for a franchise. What Malek has that others don’t is the ultimate political connection: As co-owner of the Texas Rangers, his partner was George W. Bush.
Bush’s $606,000 investment in the Rangers in 1989 netted him $14 million when he sold his share in 1994 to run for governor of Texas. Such good fortune is not easily forgotten. Bush himself has spoken publicly of his desire to see Major League Baseball return to Washington (Clinton, by contrast, did not). His opinion will no doubt weigh heavily on any decision to relocate a team, thanks to his position and his personal connections to baseball’s owners and commissioner (himself the silent owner of the Milwaukee Brewers). The question is, which side of the Potomac will Bush recommend?
Politically, Bush may be tempted to back the heavily Republican Virginia delegation in Congress, and some say he’s already put in a word to that effect. But as a former owner, he also understands the economics of relocation. Typically, whichever party allows baseball to drink most deeply from the public trough gets its way. The preferred methods of corporate entitlement are the publicly funded stadium, taxpayer coverage of cost overruns, charitable rent prices, and team retention of most stadium revenues. When taxpayers fund stadiums, directly or indirectly, a team’s revenue can increase by 50 percent. This in turn causes franchise values to soar, as Calvin Griffith, and many owners since him, have discovered. Bush himself convinced the city of Arlington, Texas, to cough up $135 million toward the price of a stadium, which exponentially increased the value of his investment.
Whether Virginia or the District gets the ultimate nod from Bush and his owner buddies may come down to which jurisdiction can offer up big subsidies. Here, the District has the advantage. Ron Utt of the Heritage Foundation points out that District law does not subject bond offerings, a likely vehicle for stadium financing, to referendum, only to city council approval. But in Northern Virginia, a countywide vote would be required. As a result, Utt argues, Major League Baseball will probably conclude that D.C. is “most likely to support and finance a stadium with the least amount of resistance.”
Bush and the owners can also read a balance sheet. The fact that Bill Collins, managing partner of the Virginia Baseball Club, Inc., and likely the lead investor in a Northern Virginia team, appears to be in dire financial straits favors the District’s. chances. In April, his company, Metrocall, narrowly avoided having to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and its financial situation remains grim.
In the end, the smart money is on the District. Washington Mayor Anthony Williams has met with Bush to discuss bringing in a team. And the ability of Fred Malek to pull strings shouldn’t be underestimated. Asked if his history with Bush, if he chooses to exploit it, might give him a leg up in the bidding process, Malek replies, “Of course it will.”
The only real obstacle to baseball’s return to D.C. is Peter Angelos, owner of the Baltimore Orioles. Angelos regards the D.C. area as his club’s birthright (D.C. and Baltimore are only 40 miles apart), and in the clubby world of baseball owners, he has a case. Major League Baseball traditionally grants owners territorial rights in order to protect market shares and prevent teams from directly competing for revenues. Unfortunately for Angelos, the Expos are a National League team, and the prospect of moving them into the territory of the Orioles, an American League team, is viewed by owners as less of an infringement. Angelos is also a trial lawyer and major Democratic fundraiser, two vocations guaranteed not to endear him to President Bush.
One more element working against Angelos should not be underestimated: the desire among his fellow owners for revenge. Baseball owners have short memories for their mistakes, but long ones for their affronts. Privately, they’re still miffed at Angelos for breaking ranks during the 1994 labor stoppage, when he was the lone owner to oppose the laughable idea of hiring replacement players to finish the 1995 season and break the players’ union. While Angelos has done his best since then to win back the favor of his peers, his perceived disloyalty will hurt him when he seeks the necessary votes to block the Expos’ relocation to Washington. As one major-league front-office source puts it, an Angelos countermeasure “won’t have a fucking prayer.”
No move of the Expos is imminent. Players and owners must first work out a new collective bargaining agreement, a process they’ve only just begun. Until then, owners won’t relinquish the possibility of contraction, or the negotiating leverage which it confers. However soon a new agreement is reached, no move could be made before the 2002 season. And if the current collective-bargaining agreement is extended for another year, it could be 2004 before Washington gets its new team. But it’s bound to happen. Because this time, baseball owners will have finally learned the rules of a different kind of inside baseball—the kind already played in Washington.