The Washington Senators left the District because the fans didn’t care about baseball. The Senators may return because baseball doesn’t care about the fans.

Illustrations by Ward Sutton

Numbers aren’t everything in baseball. There is a sentimental streak in the game that endures, despite the best efforts of statistics-crunchers to reduce it all to cold, mechanical odds. Still, the numbers are a good place to start. So here are some numbers: 0 for 6.

That’s Washington, D.C.’s, box-score line in the big game of baseball. Six teams have been founded here, in the various leagues that Major League Baseball historians count as the majors. None are still in town.

In 1884, two different teams called the Washington Nationals took the field—one in the American Association, the other in the Union Association. Both squads were out of business by 1885. Those were the first of the half-dozen different Nationals, Senators, or Statesmen to play major-league baseball here, and their twin failures seem to have set a tone. Every team that has tried to play in the District has ended up either in oblivion or halfway across the country.

It’s been 31 years since the last incarnation of the Washington Senators skipped town to become the Texas Rangers. Yet the District, like some pennant-waving Miss Havisham, refuses to put its lost hopes behind it. The city clings to the belief that this is just an intermission, that the big-leaguers are just off on an extra-long road trip. They’ll be back home any day now, where they belong.

But Miss Havisham hasn’t spent that time withering away. She has, as D.C. baseball backers tell it, developed a whole new set of assets. The District today, they say, is not the same District that lost baseball six times over. It is bigger, richer, and more suited to host a baseball franchise than ever before.

“I think it’s unfair to compare the D.C. of then to the D.C. of now,” says Winston Lord, executive director of the Washington Baseball Club. The club is a powerful would-be ownership group, headed by former Rangers owner Fred Malek of Thayer Capital and including Fannie Mae head Franklin Raines, former AOL Chair James Kimsey, Darrell Green, and Vernon Jordan.

The D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, working with the Washington Baseball Club, has sent out a brochure to all the Major League Baseball owners, trumpeting the Washington area’s demographic bounty: 4.7 million people, 2 million television households, 22 million visitors spending $5.9 billion. Big numbers come tumbling out merely for bigness’ sake: Mobil (which employs people around here) has annual sales of $64,327,000,000; the human genome (which is being mapped around here) has “three billion DNA building blocks.”

All those zeros are just what Major League Baseball wants to see. The game is in love with hugeness: huge players, huge payrolls, huge ticket prices. Alex Rodriguez is on a $250 million contract. The Boston Red Sox just sold for $700 million. Owners may cry that they can’t meet payroll, but there are always more owners waiting to get in. Where the D.C. of old couldn’t keep even one baseball owner around, the region now has multiple moguls competing to land a franchise. Northern Virginia has a group, headed by Metrocall CEO William Collins. Redskins owner Daniel Snyder may go after a team on his own. The thirst for revenue is never quenched.

And the District is an untapped aquifer, ready to spray money like an artesian well. The population and income profile works for a swath of other sports ventures; D.C. doesn’t host just successful NFL, NBA, and NHL squads, but men’s and women’s soccer, too. The Mystics are the best-supported team in the WNBA. Even the Grand Prix drew crowds.

Who cares if people in the District love the game of baseball? It’s the customer base, not the fan base, that matters. The city teems with corporations, lobbyists, and law firms eager to snap up luxury suites and season-ticket packages.

The rules of the baseball business have changed in the last three decades, too. A team can win the hearts of its fans and still lose at the box office. Or if the money’s right, a team with no tradition or fan base can be a shining success. The public doesn’t even have to show up.

The Arizona Diamondbacks, a franchise that didn’t exist five years ago, have three different collectible caps and a ballpark where fans soak in a built-in swimming pool. And they’re the defending world champions. The Kansas City Royals, for years one of the majors’ best-run and most beloved teams, are on the brink of extinction after trading away a generation of their best players, saying they couldn’t afford to pay star salaries.

In this new arrangement, a century of failure means nothing next to the promise of a strong cash flow. Whatever civic malaise may have driven the game out of town six times before is irrelevant from Major League Baseball’s point of view.

Thus, after years of ignoring D.C.—while establishing outposts of the national pastime in such storied and indispensable American cities as Tampa and Phoenix—the Commissioner’s Office has begun to describe baseball’s return to the District as well-deserved, even “inevitable.” With attendance slipping and some teams allegedly struggling to make payroll—and with a strike threatened over revenue-sharing schemes—the owners suddenly see the wisdom of restoring the Senators.

“At the end of the day,” Lord says, “baseball is going to see that Washington, D.C., is a solution.”

Baseball backers know better than to dwell on the balance sheet when they’re pitching the idea of returning the majors to the District. Instead, D.C. is focused on a romantic vision of restoration. The Washington Post’s sports pages burst with talk about reclaiming the city’s birthright and destiny, reclaiming the rich tradition of Senators baseball. Someday—before this presidential term is up—George W. Bush could be throwing out the first pitch at RFK Stadium, reviving the Presidential Opener, an observance that ran from William Howard Taft to Richard Nixon.

“Basically, it’s a simple vision,” Lord says. “It’s returning the national pastime to the nation’s capital.” It’s an incantation, tuned to sound both patriotic and logical. Mayor Anthony A. Williams writes the same thing to the baseball owners, in the foreword to the Sports Commission brochure: “I am sure you will be convinced that the National Pastime should return to the Nation’s Capital.”

There’s a contradiction lurking in this, between the appeal to nostalgia and the appeal to the bottom line. The legacy of Walter Johnson and President Taft, after all, belongs to the old, bygone District, the sleepy old one-industry burg that’s supposedly been buried under the new growth and prosperity. The city’s million-plus newcomers since 1971 can scarcely say that they want their old team back.

Even so, the pitch has a sentimental appeal. Baseball does seem incomplete without the Senators, amid all the Marlins and Brewers and Rockies. Big-league baseball in Washington has the dignity of history about it.

But it does not have a history of dignity. There is, as most everyone knows, the tradition of losing. “Washington: First in war,” the saying went, spoofing an old praise meant for the Father of Our Country, “first in peace, and last in the American League.” People who can’t name five Senators players still remember the putdown.

Even so, it could have been crueler. The original motto, the one about George, ended “first in the hearts of his countrymen.” The revised version, mocking of the Senators’ won-lost record, is silent about where the baseball team stood in the hearts of its countrymen.

As bad as the Senators were on the field—and they were awful, almost without respite—their fan support was worse. In 71 years of American League baseball, Washington saw only 19 winning seasons. But there were even fewer years when the Senators had a winning year at the gate: Only nine times did Washington’s franchise finish in the top half of the league in attendance.

The Senators’ teams, lowly as they mostly were, won three pennants and a World Series. The Senators’ fans, by comparison, never once topped the league.

Here’s how the longest-lived Senators, the 1901-1960 version, ranked in attendance in their last 10 years in the eight-team American League, before they pulled up the bases and went off to be the Minnesota Twins: sixth, sixth, sixth, seventh, eighth, eighth, eighth, eighth, eighth, eighth.

Is that because the Senators were moribund by then, their fans put off by 50-some years of losing? Here’s where their attendance ranked at the dawn of the century, in the first 10 years of the American League: fifth, seventh, eighth, eighth, seventh, eighth, eighth, eighth, eighth, seventh.

It’s hard not to notice the pattern here. In 1961, the league expanded from eight teams to 10, including a brand-new set of Washington Senators, to replace the ones who had fled to Minnesota. Suddenly, it was possible to rank as low or ninth or 10th in attendance, and the revived Senators did it—finishing dead last at the box office four years out of eight. (The AL added two more teams in ’69, but the Senators, alas, never made it to 12th place in attendance—they’d only sunk to 11th by 1971, when they lit out for Texas.)

Senators loyalists will say, in each case, that there were circumstances to explain the shortfall. The Senators were mismanaged, mispromoted, mislocated. And surely they were.

Seventy-one years of historical contingencies, though, adds up to history. And the history stinks. The Senators were unpopular when they were good (eight winning seasons between 1924 and 1933), and they were unpopular when they were bad. They were unpopular in a crumbling old ballpark and in a pair of brand-new ones. They were unpopular in war and in peace, in the depths of the Depression and in the postwar boom. Only once, when the G.I.s came home in 1946, did they top 1 million in attendance—and that still only ranked fifth in the league.

The Sports Commission’s marketing brochure gamely tries to deny the obvious. “Though some believe the Senators moved to Texas because of a lack of fan support,” it argues, “the reality is that in 1969, two years before their departure…attendance was 87% of the Baltimore Orioles. This, despite the fact that the Senators finished 23 games out of first place while the Orioles were headed to the World Series for the first of three consecutive years.”

This account skips two facts: The Orioles were coming off a bad performance the year before, and 1969 was an anomalous year in Washington baseball history. That was the season that the Senators were a national sensation, as Ted Williams made his debut as a manager and somehow spurred the team to an 86-76 record—akin to the 2001-2002 Wizards’ sudden popularity with Michael Jordan. The next year the Senators were losers again, and attendance dropped by 93,000.

But D.C. fans do go to the ballpark now. Ever since Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened in Baltimore, bringing in a more affluent strain of customers, Baltimoreans have grumbled about the Washington folks. They’re the ones who trickle in around the second inning, wearing corporate casual. They peel off from the crowd, riding an escalator to the club level, or they show up in the best parts of the grandstand, with an usher leading them down to prime box seats.

Even sitting right by the field, they never seem to notice the action. They cheer indifferently, when the scoreboard tells them to—or just spend the game talking on their cell phones. And they bail out by the seventh inning.

Baltimore may have a habit of blaming everything fake and wealthy on interlopers from down the parkway. But whether they’re all from the District or not, the rich and detached fans are real. Oriole Park was the first of a wave of ballparks built around luxury boxes and premium season tickets. Those customers are the foundation of Major League Baseball’s current economic plan.

And Orioles management doesn’t want to lose them. Baltimore-Washington, the O’s maintain, is one market—and “when there are two teams in a market,” Orioles spokesperson Bill Stetka says, “both cannot thrive.”

Before, when there were two teams in Baltimore-Washington, the Orioles didn’t mind. In 1954, their first year in Baltimore, they outdrew the Senators 2 to 1, and they kept clobbering their southern neighbor at the box office to the end. It seems ungallant for the O’s to begrudge Washington its chance to try again. But Stetka says that by the Orioles’ count, as much as 28 percent of the team’s ticket sales go to ZIP codes in the D.C. area. The Washington Baseball Club says its exit polls at Oriole Park put the figure at 22 percent—and that two-thirds of those Washington fans say they’d keep going to O’s games regardless of whether D.C. has its own team.

But the most important customers, in economic terms, may not have been available for exit polling. They’re the ones who don’t go to the games at all. Earlier this summer, Stetka said that since Cal Ripken Jr.’s retirement, the Orioles have actually improved their turnstile rate—that is, the percentage of ticket-holding fans who show up at the park. For instance, he said, in one game against the Phillies, the O’s sold 48,000 tickets, and 44,000 people showed up.

Four thousand no-shows, he explained, is a good turnout rate. Overall, roughly through the first half of this season, the Orioles had been running at about 20 percent no-shows. By comparison, Stetka says, the Atlanta Braves were getting 22 percent. The Texas Rangers were at 25 percent. At Wrigley Field, the figure was 26 percent. In Toronto’s SkyDome, the ballpark of the future only 13 years ago, the Blue Jays had a 32 percent no-show rate.

Absentee fans are not, under the current rules of the game, a sign that a franchise is struggling. Successful, high-revenue teams generally have worse turnout. It’s a basic property of the business model: The more tickets you sell, the more tickets go unused.

Season-ticket customers, especially corporate ones, aren’t necessarily planning to show up at a game—they’re just buying the option to show up. A club suite, Stetka points out, may contain 12 or 16 seats, but it might be occupied many nights by a party of four.

Official Major League Baseball attendance figures, listed in box scores and league reports, are based on ticket sales only. No-show numbers are hard to come by; when asked to confirm or clarify the Orioles’ figures—which Stetka says came from an internal Major League Baseball document—the Commissioner’s Office adamantly denied that such numbers existed at all. Turnstiles still exist, and they count the people passing through them, but Major League Baseball says it ignores the tally.

What the no-show rate says is that a rise in fandom isn’t what’s driving baseball’s latest boom. Pundits worry that another strike might break the hearts of children and make dedicated fans stopped going to the ballpark. But baseball could see an overnight 20 percent drop in the gate if the people who already skip games merely stop buying tickets. The game is on the bubble along with everyone else.

The District is embarrassed, even after all this time, at the thought that it’s not a major-league city. The very term “major-league” is part of the basic language of civic pride; nobody, Lord points out, boasts of being an “NFL city.”

From the East Coast to California, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf Coast, cities have opened their coffers on the promise of joining the big leagues or under the threat of being delisted. New and lavish ballparks, with retractable roofs and luxury suites, twinkle across the continent. The Washington Baseball Club and the mayor stand ready to spend hundreds of millions of dollars—just how many and whose are yet to be determined—to get the District into the game.

But what does it mean nowadays to be in the big leagues? D.C.’s sales pitch includes charts and tables that explain how and why this city is more deserving of a baseball team than the other cities trying to get one: Las Vegas, Portland, Ore., and Charlotte, N.C.

Charlotte? The nation’s capital needs the blessing of the baseball owners—the lords of Tampa, Milwaukee, and Anaheim—to certify that it outranks Charlotte?

The District doesn’t need a baseball team to prove its civic bona fides. There’s no shame in not having baseball. For D.C., it may even be a virtue. The District’s great municipal fear, after all, is that it’s somehow not a real place, that it’s culturally and spiritually an un-city. Well, real cities are not all-purpose sports-entertainment markets. They have definable tastes in sports.

Oakland, for instance: football town. Not baseball. Even when the Raiders were in exile in Los Angeles, it was a football town. And the Raiders came back north, in the end, because Los Angeles is decidedly not interested in football. Los Angeles is a basketball town.

On it goes. St. Louis has somehow got a brilliant football team, but the city’s heart is still in baseball. Baltimore is football first, baseball second—and pro basketball gone down the parkway with no regrets.

The District is a football town. There’s room for other sports: pro and college basketball, soccer even. But everything stops for football. Even in the middle of summer, it’s not as if the city is listening forlornly to the silence where the crack of the bat should be. Almost as soon as the Wizards go on vacation, it’s time for the Redskins’ pre-preseason coverage.

Local observers have long tried to explain the District’s football mania as the product of its high-powered national political culture—brawny opposing forces slamming together, contesting each inch of turf, and so on. That doesn’t explain how Green Bay, Wis., despite its shortage of lobbyists, is a football town, too. There’s no plain sociological explanation for these things. It may seem goofy or worse to outsiders, but it’s just how D.C. thinks: The District’s citizens would rather track Danny Wuerffel’s progress in seven-on-seven passing drills than worry about pennant races.

The current condition of the Orioles should help warn D.C. what it would be getting into by rejoining the majors. One thing that everyone knows down here is that the O’s are a terrible team. The Post’s Thomas Boswell—who has become a newsprint Captain Ahab, maniacal with the thought of harpooning a franchise—tore into Baltimore’s management this spring, accusing it of conspiring to “put the most fan-repellent team possible on the field,” so that attendance would slump and owner Peter Angelos could “build a case for preventing baseball from returning to Washington.”

But the 2002 Orioles are not the worst team possible. Yes, they have no established stars and no hope of winning the pennant; they have spent the summer struggling in vain to break the .500 mark. Even so, they could be much, much worse.

What the Orioles are is average. Statistically, they are as close to the median as they can be: They have the seventh-best record in the 14-team American League. They have one of the top 10 pitchers and none of the top 10 hitters. They are, in short, pretty much what you’d get if baseball talent were spread across the majors at random.

With 30 teams crowded into the majors, there is not enough good baseball to go around. The playoffs have been padded out, with three divisions and a wild-card team per league, but life at the bottom hasn’t changed since the Senators were around—it’s just that there’s more of it. Seventh place in 2002 is pretty much as hopeless as seventh place was in 1942.

Only now there are seven places below it. What baseball has done is to tack on a de facto minor-league circuit, playing in major-league parks at major-league prices.

The league is not selling baseball, but the impression of baseball. Commissioner Bud Selig sees the future, and it’s his own team—on paper, his daughter’s team—the Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers are playing .350 ball in a newly built, retractable-roofed reinterpretation of Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, somewhere in the suburbs, with a TGI Friday’s built into the stands in left field. And they’re selling about 5,000 more tickets per game than they did in their last year at County Stadium.

So the game depends on clueless and apathetic fans. It needs customers who don’t know the difference between, say, Miguel Tejada and Neifi Perez (answer: 23 homers and 54 RBI last year), and don’t care. As long as the fan base is content with an extra-wide seat, a $5 beer, and the sight of some guys in some uniform, baseball figures it can keep going indefinitely.

Already, Washington, D.C.’s, median-level team awaits: It’s the Montreal Expos. The Expos have been in receivership since this past winter, when their last owner ditched them to buy the Florida Marlins.

Baseball made noises then about eliminating the Expos altogether, along with some other franchise, to cut back to 28 teams. Whether it was a real business plan or just something to threaten the Players Association with, the downsizing effort stalled out, and the Expos took the field as orphans, with a coaching staff and team executives appointed by the Commissioner’s Office.

After a strong start, the Expos, like the Orioles, are hovering squarely in the middle of the pack and right around .500. Unlike the Orioles, they’ve got some star power going for them: Right fielder Vladimir Guerrero, only 26 years old, just hit his 200th career home run and has won the kind of hyperbolic praise usually reserved for Hall of Famers or New York Yankees. And earlier this year, when they still looked as if they’d make a run at the playoffs, the Expos traded for Cleveland ace pitcher Bartolo Colon.

If the Expos do land in Washington next season, they might stand a chance of becoming the best Senators team since Franklin Roosevelt’s first term. Happy days, here again.

But for how long? There were happy days in Montreal, too, once upon a time. In 1969, while Ted Williams’ 86-win Senators were drawing 918,106 fans to RFK, the newly minted Expos pulled 1.2 million to Parc Jarry, despite losing 110 games.

The myth now is that les Expos were a doomed proposition all along, that baseball could never properly survive the translation into French and metric. But in four different years, the Expos drew more than 2 million fans at Stade Olympique, a benchmark far beyond the Senators’ reach.

In fact, Quebec has a long baseball history—the Triple A Montreal Royals were Jackie Robinson’s last stop before the Dodgers—and the locals were once famous for their attachment to players. Rusty Staub played only three-and-a-half of his 23 seasons in Montreal, yet he went down in baseball history as “Le Grande Orange.” Tim Raines, a seven-time all-star for the Expos, made such an impression that when Tim Raines Jr. joined the Orioles minor-league team in Bowie last spring, a Canadian TV crew came down to film him in action.

Even as Expos management spent the early and mid-’90s dumping star players, in endless cost-cutting, attendance hovered around 20,000 per game. It took a solid decade of miserliness and abuse from ownership—aimed, seemingly, at proving that a baseball team could fail—to drive the Montreal faithful away. So flagrant was the mismanagement, in fact, that the team’s former minority partners filed suit last month against the last owner, Jeffery Loria, and Selig. Under the RICO Act, they charged that baseball brass had “engaged in a scheme that had as its object the destruction of baseball in Montreal.”

What was the point of Damn Yankees again? Washington can have baseball success if it wants. Someone just needs to sell a soul.

Baseball nostalgists in the District can find plenty of cautionary tales around the sport. Look at the former Senators, on their opposite poles of the prairie. The Twins sit atop the American League Central Division, thanks to a dirt-cheap payroll full of homegrown talent. But their owner, unable to blackmail the Gopher State into building a new stadium, has already tried to offer them up for contraction.

The Rangers, meanwhile, have an expensive new ballpark and one of the fattest payrolls in the majors. And they’re securely in last place, having spent so much to buy hitters that they couldn’t round up a credible pitching staff.

This is Major League Baseball, circa 2002: greedy, overextended, and mediocre. This is the game that the District wants to play.

The Washington Baseball Club insists that it’s not going to be foolish. It’s not going to make any commitments ’til baseball has a new labor agreement in place and the current warfare between rich and poor teams has been settled. “If the economics doesn’t work,” Lord says, “we may not want to buy a team.”

“We’re not going to spend…a billion dollars,” he says. “We’re not that fanatical about it.”

But baseball consumes whatever you give it. The mere act of landing a team doesn’t end the struggle to keep it. In 1962, the expansion Senators finally put decrepit old Griffith Stadium behind them. D.C. Stadium (which would be renamed RFK) was to be the state-of-the-art replacement. Now, the first order of business for a new Senators team will be to get out of RFK as fast as possible. Already, six teams of consultants are scouting and ranking various 10- to 20-acre sites around the District. Twenty or 30 years from now, they may have to go looking again.

The city hopes not to have to do that. The goal this time is to build not just a new ballpark, but the newest ballpark. Oriole Park, which started the ’90s craze for retro-styled parks, still has its pioneer’s cachet; the rest of the bricks-and-green-steel creations are already starting to blur together. Hence the Washington Baseball Club, Lord says, hopes to have a park that’s “the first of the next generation.”

And perhaps it will. Maybe five years from now, Vlad Guerrero will be wearing a Senators uniform as he hits his 450th home run, sending the ball clear out of Walter Johnson Stadium onto U Street. Cell phones will trill to life throughout the grandstands, as 37,000 fans call the 11,000 no-shows to brag about what they’ve seen. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays pitcher hangs his head—or wait, are these the Devil Rays or the Marlins? Didn’t the Marlins move to Nashville? The crowd applauds appreciatively, as the steel-framed stadium trembles with surround-sound music and the 64-color scoreboard shows an animated loop of virtual fans, packed into virtual seats, rising and cheering. The national pastime lives on in D.C. CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustrations by Ward Sutton.

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