Sunday, August 22, 2004

Thomas Boswell: Fans Voice a Weary Rage

Thursday, August 19, 2004; Page D01
The Washington Post

At 17th and K streets, you could see police cars with roof lights flashing.
Beyond the cops were crowds in Farragut Square gathered around Lee Mazzilli, Miguel Tejada and other Orioles at their "D.C. Summer FanFest" -- an annual event that has come to symbolize owner Peter Angelos's galling claim that the entire Washington area is a mere province in his monopoly game.

Like Hagerstown or Frederick, but slightly bigger. Send the balloons, the free hot dogs, the mascot and reel in the suckers.

"Oh, no," I thought, looking at those spinning police lights. "Violence already."

At the Boston Tea Party, our ancestors protested taxation without representation by dumping tea in a harbor. What might Washingtonians do, after being denied baseball for 33 years, when they saw such a cynical "FanFest" in the center of the downtown? What gall! Especially since on Thursday, at the summer meetings in Philadelphia, the issue of relocating the Montreal Expos was scheduled for discussion, though not action.
Surely, once again, Angelos would make the case that Washington -- despite his lack of a shred of legal cause or baseball precedent -- was merely part of his losing team's marketing territory.

Why, he might even pass around photographs of this "D.C. Summer FanFest" to show his fellow owners all the thousands of Washington fans who docilely supported his team. "See, this was yesterday," he could say. "Washington doesn't want a team. They have a team. My team. Here's the proof. They're lined up for a block for Raffy's autograph."

How could Angelos be expected to prosper if, fielding his seventh straight losing team, he was not allowed to fleece such obedient oblivious sheep?

So, forgive me, I expected the worst. Surely there would be a bonfire built with Orioles season ticket brochures. Perhaps there'd be effigies of the owner. And what would happen to the poor Bird? How fast can you run from a mob in a mascot suit?

Instead, Farragut Park was a baseball idyll on Wednesday. Thousands of Washingtonians, in three hours of interviews, were of one nearly unanimous mind. They love the Orioles. They love baseball. They deeply want a team back in Washington. They think the idea of putting a team near Dulles Airport is both a bad joke and a certain disaster. And they know for certain that Angelos is a brazen monopolist who's already maimed the Orioles and now wants to grab something that isn't his: Washington.

"I can sum up why we don't already have the Expos in two words: Peter Angelos," said Mike Henry, a local college history teacher. "It's as flagrant an abuse of the free market system as you could find. It's like what the 19th-century robber barons, like Carnegie and Flynt, tried to do in the steel industry. Baseball's antitrust exemption inoculates Angelos from having to field a quality product. Competition drives quality in America."

If baseball's owners want to know what binds Washington and what makes it such a logical market for a successful team, it is not merely the metropolitan area's vast size and affluence, soon to be fifth in the nation in both categories. It's the universal enthusiasm for using the Metro to get to a downtown ballpark. For Henry, who lives in Silver Spring, a District team would be a short subway hop. "If they put a team in Dulles, it might as well be in Pittsburgh," said Henry.

While his son Julian, 12, and daughter Maia, 10, waited for autographs, Kenneth Martini of Gaithersburg fantasized about such a downtown park. "We go to three or four Oriole games a year. But it takes so long to get to Baltimore that night games are out of the question. But a team downtown! Just hop on the Shady Grove Metro. Be there in 45 minutes. An ideal world for us would be the Orioles in Baltimore and the Senators back in Washington. We would go much more often."

When baseball, especially in Washington, would mean so much to his family, why is Martini taking part in Angelos's transparent D.C.-Is-Oriole-Territory FanFest? "I try to divorce my sentiments toward Mr. Angelos from my sentiments toward the Orioles," said Martini who works at a law firm. "If I were in his position, I'd put my wallet ahead of everybody else, too. But every citizen has interests, too. He's holding a city and a region hostage to his financial interests."

While Angelos likes to pretend that Washington fans will inevitably spurn the Orioles for a local team, his abstract case butts heads with the reality of individual fans. "I've been an Oriole fan since 1966 when they got Frank Robinson. He's always been my hero. Not just as a player, but as the first black manager and the first black general manager," said Matthew Stewart, deputy chief information officer at the Department of the Interior. "I'm not going to stop being an Orioles fan. But there should be a National League team in Washington. It's wrong to stop it.

"When I got here and saw this crowd, I thought, 'This is going to be on the news for the baseball owners to see,' " said Stewart, annoyed at his sense of being used, even though he had tickets for Friday night's Orioles game in his shirt pocket.

John Balkam, 12, has been working on his two-seam fastball lately. So far this season, he and his father Cliff are "4-1" when they attend Orioles games. Despite his Tejada jersey, Balkam can hardly imagine how happy he'd be if Washington also had a team. "Let's start another rivalry like the Mets and the Yankees," he said.

"I hope Angelos can find it somewhere in his crabbed heart to do the right thing," his father said.

Of course, given his choice of evils, Angelos would infinitely prefer a team in Loudoun County that would, for all practical purposes, draw from a population base similar to second-tier baseball-seeking cities like Portland and Las Vegas. "I live 10 miles from the proposed [Northern Virginia] site," said Andy Ahlberg, a 38-year-old lawyer from Centreville, "and even I know you shouldn't try to put a team out there. Everybody I talk to says that D.C. is the best place."

Despite the wide dislike of Angelos, for his mismanagement of the Orioles as well as his opposition to Washington, only two fans out of several thousand were spotted with protest signs at Farragut Square. "There Are No Real Baseball Fans in D.C.,' " said the sign of Billy Valentine, 17, quoting Angelos from a few days ago. "Boycott the O's."

"Everybody has been telling us they like our signs," said Billy's 14-year-old brother, Steven. "We've only had two negative comments."

"Some guy said, 'Go home,' " said Billy Valentine, incredulously. "I said, 'I am home. You can't tell me to go home.' "

If the thousands of fans who passed through Farragut Square for three hours cast the deciding votes on the Expos fate, then Washington would have a downtown team next season and the Orioles would still have plenty of local fans. But they don't vote.

"It's hard not to become cynical," said Colin Mills of Reston. Mills, 25, has already done 15 years of hard time in the waiting game. "I don't think anything will come of it. Or they'll put a team in Loudoun -- the middle of nowhere, a cow pasture.

"I wish I really thought that next year there'd be a team in Washington and a Senators FanFest right here."

As he spoke, the Orioles rock band blasted out an old metal hit. "Endless night, endless night," went the lyrics. "We're off to Never-Never Land."

Well, baseball, make up your mind. Endless night. Or off to Never-Never Land. Which is it for Washington?

© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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