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Nation's Capital Ready to 'Play Ball!'

September 30, 2004|Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — From the glass-partitioned lobbying firms of K Street to a dusty waterfront tract destined to make way for a new stadium, the nation's capital obsessed Wednesday about something besides politics for a change, exuberant about the return of baseball.

All it took was the long-awaited announcement from city officials that Major League Baseball had agreed to move the Montreal Expos to Washington. Fans went into overdrive.

The rootless baseball team has no local owner, no sales outlets, no permanent stadium and no new name -- but that proved no impediment to a town eager for the return of the American game.

Schoolchildren and talk show listeners spent the day debating the most fitting name for the new team. Baseball traditionalists wanted the Senators -- the name once owned by the city's hapless, long-gone American League team -- or the Grays, once a mainstay of the old Negro League.

Modernists suggested the Monuments or the Metros. Wags had a field day, imagining the Washington Rhetoric, the Gridlock, the Beltways, the Pundits, the Cons.

In scores of city offices, workers talked of pooling their money to share season tickets not yet for sale. The leading prospective buyer for the team, the Washington Baseball Club, was deluged with 1,000 season ticket requests in a single day -- adding to its waiting list of 10,000.

"Interest has already been high, but this takes it to a new level," said Winston Lord, the club's executive director.

And from the Capitol to K Street, political operatives and officeholders diverted their attention for a few hours from the looming presidential race to wonder aloud if baseball would replace Redskins football as the city's premier sports attraction.

"Baseball games are going to be the new place to do business and fundraising in this town," said Frank Luntz, a veteran Republican pollster. "Remember, the intersection of baseball and politics is money."

On his way from a meeting in the Capitol, Luntz listened in on a crowded elevator as two congressmen -- one an unidentified Californian -- talked about their newly divided loyalties. "One of them," Luntz recounted, "says to the other: 'Next year, I'll focus on the Washington team. This year I'm focused on the Dodgers.' "

Presidential politics may play a role in shaping baseball's future in Washington, said Tony Coelho, the former Democratic California congressman and political insider. "If [President] Bush wins, baseball will really be the only game in town," Coelho said.

As a former owner of the Texas Rangers -- the Senators before their 1971 move -- Bush "would make the new team his team," Coelho reasoned. "He knows a lot of the baseball owners, and they've raised a lot of money for him. He'll have them in and he'll wine and dine them. If [Sen. John F.] Kerry wins, it'll still be a big local thing, but not quite on the same level."

Outside a finance and lobbying nerve center at 19th and K, two commercial lending specialists on a cigarette break shrugged at the notion of baseball supremacy. Puffing into the wind, lender Jim Sherrick, 39, predicted that baseball games would become just another venue for entertaining clients -- nothing more, nothing less.

"I'm sure my firm will get tickets," Sherrick said, "but I don't see it going beyond that. It's just one more way of doing business."

Few residents were more ecstatic Wednesday than Senators fans who felt betrayed by then-owner Bob Short's decision to move the team. Like dreamy Brooklyn Dodgers die-hards, Senators loyalists have spent three decades pining for a replacement, certain their prayers would never be answered.

"You can't imagine what today is like," said John Sery, 53, a former American Film Institute technician who treasures a home movie he took of the defunct team's last home game in 1971. Typical of the star-crossed Senators, it ended in a forfeit to the New York Yankees as thousands of fans streamed onto the field with one out left in the game.

"It's been so agonizing for so long," Sery said. "This city would always get so close to getting a team, but it kept slipping through our hands."

When the Senators left in '71, it was actually the second time in a decade that Washington fans had gone into mourning. Owner Calvin Griffith moved the original team -- which had been around since 1901 -- to Minnesota after the 1960 season. A year later, an expansion version of the Senators arrived.

Wednesday afternoon, Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams was wearing a replica of a red Senators cap when he turned up at the City Museum and informed a cheering crowd that Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig had called him an hour earlier with the official good news.

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