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Away Games

By Russ Smith | Posted 10/6/2004

Last Friday night I was waiting on a long line at a concession stand during the Orioles-Red Sox game and struck up a conversation with a young fellow wearing a Pedro Martinez T-shirt. After exchanging views on Boston’s playoff odds, we chatted about the Expos moving to Washington next year. As it turned out, my 20-minute acquaintance lives in D.C. and, as one would expect, is bullish about having a Major League team in his backyard. So, would that eliminate his visits to Camden Yards? Emphatically not, the man responded, saying he comes to Baltimore at least seven times a year, all for Boston or New York games, and, as he’s an American League fan, that won’t change.

This anecdotal evidence is far more believable than O’s owner Peter Angelos’ pre-emptive arguments against D.C. relocation, claiming that up to a quarter of the Orioles fan base comes from Washington, most of which would be wiped out with the Expos showing up in the District. There’s no doubt that out-of-town attendance, at least from D.C., will be somewhat affected; the once or twice a year spectator who brings the kids to a game will be ecstatic at taking the Metro or driving 15 minutes to (for the next three years) RFK Stadium rather than facing traffic tie-ups on the way to Baltimore.

And Angelos, a far better negotiator than baseball strategist, stuck up Commissioner Bud Selig for generous revenue concessions in exchange for his grudging assent to the Expos move. That’s a legal swindle in my book—it’s not as if the Baltimore-Washington metro market is tiny, and the Oakland A’s and San Francisco Giants, close in proximity, both do well—but if that’s what it takes to get a deal done, fine.

As columnist John Eisenberg wrote in The Sun on Oct. 2, one of the immediate repercussions of the recent announcement is that Angelos and his management will be forced to put a seriously competitive team on the field at Camden Yards. Angelos claims he’s ready to open his wallet again—and no one would argue that last year’s acquisition of Miguel Tejada and Javy Lopez were immense upgrades—so maybe once the owner counts his beans from the settlement he’ll give permission to the team’s general managers to buy or trade for two high-caliber starting pitchers to follow Sidney Ponson in the rotation.

An Orioles team that contends, at least for the wild card, will pack in fans at Camden Yards, whether they’re from Baltimore City and the nearby suburbs, Pennsylvania, Northern Virginia, or D.C. Say the O’s are fighting for a playoff position next August; it won’t be just the Yanks and Bo Sox that draw sellout crowds, since every game will matter. Just like when the Orioles, not so long ago, used to be good.

Conversely, there will be Baltimoreans who travel to Washington next year to see the new club. As a fan who took his kids to 15 games downtown this past season, next year I’m planning two or three trips to D.C., probably during interleague play. And I doubt I’m alone: Competition invariably increases enthusiasm, which is why, for example, so many restaurants, good and bad, are clustered in Little Italy.

The Sun’s editorial reaction to the news on Sept. 30 was mixed, lauding the compensation currently being negotiated with Angelos while worrying that Inner Harbor businesses might suffer if Washingtonians desert the Orioles. Unwilling to separate baseball from the daily’s political hobbyhorses, the editorial issued this dire warning: “For taxpayers, the outlook is uncertain. If attendance declines, the Maryland Stadium Authority could lose substantial revenue, leaving the state lottery to make up the difference in operating expenses.” If The Sun is so worried about lost tax revenues, perhaps its brain trust might reconsider its Carrie Nation-like opposition to slots and casinos.

Six days earlier, columnist Michael Olesker added his embarrassingly parochial take, writing, “For Baltimore, it brings us back to our old municipal insecurities. We are a city that built a renewed, vital downtown out of an area that once seemed beyond redemption. This city is famous for its neighborhoods, but we also like the larger community mix that basks in the extended nighttime glow of the ballpark.”

Frankly, I preferred the “extended nighttime glow” of Memorial Stadium, which brought life to a neighborhood (at least during the season) that’s since gone to seed. But that’s history. Why Olesker harps on his common theme of “municipal insecurities” in the context of the Orioles is puzzling. All baseball teams have ebbs and flows in their success on the field, and the Orioles, in the franchise’s 50 years, have proven to be a civic unifier. As noted above, Angelos is going to make a bundle on this deal, and now it’s not too much to ask that he constructs a competitive team that’ll once again bring in excess of 3 million fans to Camden Yards. If the team can accomplish that feat, all this worrywart commentary about the Expos moving to D.C. will be moot.

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