The city that lost major-league baseball twice -- and has spent a good deal of the past 33 years trying to get it back -- is so close to success that it can nearly taste the Cracker Jack.
Washington's mayor has offered a tempting stadium financing deal that wouldn't require potential owners to kick in a cent for construction if the Montreal Expos come to town. Planners are waxing lyrical about America's pastime as an engine for urban renewal; business owners are daydreaming about dollars; sports fans are just waiting to hear when they can buy tickets.
But for boosters, it's more of a nail-biter than a tie game in the ninth inning with the bases loaded and two outs. They fear that this is the city's last best chance to play ball again, and that firm opposition by Orioles managing partner Peter G. Angelos could doom it.
Imagine how Baltimore would feel, they say with some bitterness, if football never returned to the city because the Redskins prevented it.
"Everybody has done everything that Major League Baseball has asked, everything," said sports marketer Charlie Brotman, who announced for the Washington Senators for years until they left town in 1971. "We couldn't do anything more. So if they turn us down now, ... I don't think it's ever going to happen."
All of this has put the nation's capital in the unusual position of having to justify its importance and make a case that it is definitively separate from its less-prominent neighbor 38 miles to the north.
Untapped fan base
While Angelos insists that a twice-reborn Senators team would doom that team and his own to financial "mediocrity," Washington leaders are aggressively arguing that they offer a nearly untapped well of fans who don't drive to see the O's but would love to hop on the Metro to catch a game.
They argue that it's not the same quiet government town it was in the 1960s and early 1970s, when the Senators sometimes played to crowds of fewer than 1,000. With nearly 5 million residents, the Washington area is the most populous in the nation without a team.
For Major League Baseball to snub it "is, I think, foolhardy," said Bill Hanbury, chief executive of the Washington, DC Convention and Tourism Corp.
Baseball has been coy about what decision it might make -- and has put off making one -- but Washingtonians were buoyed when its relocation committee visited last month.
"If we weren't serious about Washington, we wouldn't be here," John McHale Jr., the league's executive vice president of administration, said at the time.
Hanbury wants professional baseball back because he is in the business of attracting visitors and finding activities for them to spend their money on. Tourists who complain that there's not enough to do after dark in Washington could attend one of the 70 or so night games each season, he said.
"It will absolutely, unequivocally help us," Hanbury said.
City leaders see a stadium as a magnet of a different sort that would pull in new shops, offices and even homes. They're delighted at the renaissance prompted by the 7-year-old MCI Center on F Street and think baseball could do the same for any of the three downtown stadium sites preferred by city leaders.
"It would just accelerate the growth that would naturally happen," said Chris Bender, a spokesman for the city's Office of Planning and Economic Development. "It's a new way to revitalize a community."
The city plans to finance the project with bonds, to be paid back from a tax on tickets, on parking, on purchases at the ballpark and on larger local businesses.
One plan calls for building a $278 million ballpark at the RFK Stadium parking lot. City officials prefer three downtown sites, which have more "spin-off" potential because the surrounding areas could be more easily redeveloped, but those would cost as much as $383 million and require the team's owners to make lease payments.
Those sites are at New York Avenue near North Capitol Street; South Capitol and M streets; and between L'Enfant Plaza and Maine Avenue, a tricky spot that would require building over Interstate 395. None of them is far from the aged monuments and buildings that would -- partisans point out -- make a breathtaking backdrop for the stands.
'Hustle and bustle'
Mayor Anthony A. Williams thinks a stadium is worth the money because he expects $28 million in annual tax revenues, along with nearly $48 million in fan-fueled economic activity outside the ballpark.
"It would just add a lot of hustle and bustle to the city," said Barbara Lang, president and chief executive of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, who added that she thinks hotels and restaurants especially would get a boost.
The downtown Renaissance Hotel is near the New York Avenue site, so its officials are eager to see baseball come to town, especially at that location.
"We'll keep our fingers crossed," said hotel marketing director Jon Lockwood.
The Chamber of Commerce is poring over the numbers before it decides whether to support the plan, which is in flux. One tax possibility could hit companies with large capital assets for as much as $100,000 a year, compared with a proposed business income tax add-on of no more than $11,500, Lang said.
"We think that baseball for the city is a good thing," she said. "We just have to see how we can get to pay for it."
Stanford University economics professor Roger Noll argues that sports facilities can be justified only as a quality-of-life proposition, not as a sound financial investment. Stadiums don't usually generate a lot of nearby economic activity because team owners sell so much inside the stadium, he said.
"It makes no sense to build a sports bar across the street," said Noll, who edited a 1997 book about the economic impact of athletics. "No one ever comes to your sports bar because there's already five other sports bars in the stadium. ... It is really an anomaly to have the kind of comprehensive development around a stadium that occurred around the MCI Center."
Capital Restaurant Concepts, which operates 13 properties in Baltimore, Virginia and Washington, has no complaints. It gets larger crowds at its two Inner Harbor sites when the Orioles are playing.
"It does spill out," said company co-founder Paul J. Cohn, who favors a downtown site such as Camden Yards.
The city's competitors for the Expos are Northern Virginia; Norfolk, Va.; Las Vegas; Portland, Ore.; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Monterrey, Mexico.
Washington and its suburbs to the south appear to be the favorites. Proponents of fast-growing, affluent Northern Virginia are clearly operating under that assumption: Pointing out that their stadium would be farther from Baltimore, they have offered economic research suggesting that a team in the nation's capital would eat into the Orioles' attendance more than one in Virginia.
For Rick Kowalick, president of the 15,000-member Virginians for Baseball Fan Club, the point of having a team isn't about economics but about "being able to see major-league baseball in our back yard."
Fans have inundated him with e-mails telling horror stories about trying to slog to Baltimore in rush-hour traffic to catch a weekday game. "They leave here by 5, they might get in their seat by the third inning," he said.
"It would give us more of an identity, a common denominator on a major-league level," said Kowalick, 47, a financial planner who grew up going to Philadelphia Phillies games.
Washington vs. Northern Virginia seems a bit like six of one, half-dozen of the other to the 1,500-player DC Metro Senior and Adult Baseball League, which draws from the entire region. Members just want a team to root for and a professional symbol of the game to drum up youth interest.
"There's a number of talented kids," said Gaithersburg resident Larry Lombardi, 52, the league commissioner. "They're just not playing baseball."
It has been a long time since Washington kids had hometown role models for the game, since the parents of today's children were young. But the sport has deep roots in the city.
Washington had baseball teams in the 19th-century National League, including one nicknamed the Senators.
The modern-day Washington Senators date to 1901 as one of the founding franchises in the fledgling American League. They had periods of brilliance, battling to the World Series three times. In 1924, they won the championship by squeaking past the New York Giants in the 12th inning of the seventh game.
Many false alarms
They're immortalized in the 1950s musical Damn Yankees, in which a fan promises his soul to the devil if the Senators win the Series.
The team was so bad in its early and later years that only divine intervention would have helped, which is how Washington came to be known as "first in war, first in peace and last in the American League."
Hoping for better attendance in Minnesota, the Senators left after the 1960 season to become the Twins. The expansion team that replaced them, also called the Senators, headed to Texas in 1971 for the same reason. The fans were devoted but few.
"I can remember many an afternoon enjoying the solitude of the stands," said Noll, who lived in Washington during the city's second stint with professional ball.
Brotman, the former Senators announcer, figures he has sat on every committee to bring major-league baseball back, and there have been so many attempts that he has lost count. A few efforts seemed close. On other occasions, Washington found itself being used as a threat to make cities with teams work to keep them.
That could be why fans don't care to hold their breath, no matter how good things look.
"There's been talk about it happening for so many years now -- and it still hasn't happened -- that people aren't really that optimistic," said Jeff Mascott, 30, a Bethesda consultant who was born in Washington 2 1/2 years after the Senators left.
"But they're very hopeful."
Sun staff writer Ed Waldman contributed to this article.