Nation's Capital Pines For National Pastime

Hey, Baseball! Hey, Washington Baseball! Hey, Get Your Expansion Team - a letter from Washington

GEORGE CASE, Walter Johnson, Bucky Harris, Josh Gibson: Memories of Washington's baseball past come flooding back as today's boys of summer cavort briefly in this city's stadium. As baseball undergoes its annual metamorphosis from spring training to regular season, the sport brings its yearly two games to the nation's capital - outside of Mudville the most famous American baseball town not to have a major league team.

Saturday's games between the Boston Red Sox and the Baltimore Orioles prompts a question among many fans here: Will Saturday's line drives by Leo Gomez, and homers by Jack Clark and Mike Devereaux be the prelude to Washington having its own major league team in two years? The city is trying for one of two National League expansion franchises, but so are five other communities.

Washingtonians dream of a team. "We Deserve It! D.C. in '93," says a banner over the right field foul pole. "They have to give us one - we're the nation's capital!" insists a graying fan.

Baseball has always been a sport for dreamers - fans, would-be players, owners. And city officials.

For decades fans lived the dream that those who bashed home runs and pitched shutouts were angelic human beings. Most weren't. Today some baseball players live the dream that the world owes them astronomic salaries: One player who makes "only" $2 million a year complains because he's paid less than two Five Million Dollar Men.

Owners dream not only of pennants but of making money, and for decades many made a lot. Now they're sharing it with players.

And officials of cities without a team, like Washington, dream of roping one.

No one knows whether organized baseball will conclude that a team in Washington would irreparably harm the attendance of the one 50 miles away in Baltimore. Or whether other considerations will dictate installing the two expansions in more deserving cities.

If Washington gets one of the two new teams, it will be the city's third baseball franchise in the 20th century. For 60 years the nation's capital hosted the original Washington Senators - First in war/First in peace/And last in the American League; in 1961 the Senators struck out for Minneapolis, bringing the same amount of joy to Washington baseball fans that the Mighty Casey brought to Mudville.

Ten years later Washington's short-lived successor team - also called the Senators - also struck out, this time for Texas.

For the past 20 years Washington has had only its memories, its adopted Orioles up the pike, and a game or two of actual baseball every April.

The first of this year's double header was one of the tradition's better games. The athletes played ball true to the game. Fans showed they were willing to attend - 37,000 in a 48,000-seat ball park - and that they knew what to cheer and boo at once they arrived.

Only three batters into the game many spectators were hooting Baltimore's Orioles for surrendering a run on an error.

Large groups of fans were even applauding the Boston Red Sox, which illustrates the loyalty problem every Washington team faces: Because the city's residents are so transient, large numbers of expatriates come to almost every game to root for the opposition.

Baltimore's team, with all the firepower of a cap pistol last year, started the same way over the weekend - no hits until the fourth inning, only one run all game. Boston scored four.

With weekend turned into weekday and opening day now in the record books, fans in cities with teams dream of pennants.

Fans in cities without teams just dream of teams.

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