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Barnstorming ahead for team in limbo?

Posted: Friday, December 17, 2004

No longer the Montreal Expos, not quite the Washington Nationals, baseball's sad, homeless ballclub-in-limbo ought to hit the road and barnstorm through the season.

If the nation's capital can't afford, or balks at paying, the modest half-billion dollars or so it will take to house a team in a new stadium, let all Americans chip in to help out the millionaires and billionaires of the game.

When the District of Columbia Council had the temerity (or was it the good sense?) to require private financing for at least half the cost of building the place, baseball reacted Wednesday as if it had been beaned.

The 16,000 season-ticket deposits? They may have to be returned. The $100,000 worth of hats and other merchandise with the Nationals' logo sold since the team name was announced 3 1/2 weeks ago? They could become serious collectors' items from a team that may never exist.

The D.C. council could very well cave in by the Dec. 31 deadline and the team would go on with its plans to play temporarily at RFK Stadium. Or, if not, the Expos could return to Montreal's Olympic Stadium or head for a more welcoming city with deeper pockets and fewer worries about things like schools, libraries and neighborhoods.

Why should the rich take any risks when some cities are willing to throw big bucks at them, regardless of how little financial sense it makes?

Or here's another option: Every American can check off a $1 donation on federal tax forms and turn this forlorn team into a footloose franchise that roams city parks, country meadows and fields of dreams.

Call them the Drifters or the Ramblers, the Rolling Stones or Rovers, the Tramps, Sojourners or Wanderers. Their name could change at every stop.

They would be America's most endearing team, at once a symbol of impermanence and perseverance. If baseball is our national pastime, a sport that stands for our heritage and hopes, these Expos-turned-exiles would be a tribute to our wanderlust.

Let's watch them play one game in Central Park, another at Cooperstown's Abner Doubleday Field. Send them out to the film-inspired Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa, and see if baseball-playing ghosts come out of the cornfields to watch.

Las Vegas wants a team, so how about the Gambling Ramblers playing there for a night with Pete Rose throwing out the first pitch?

Norfolk is eager to get in on the action, too. Bring on the Virginia Vagabonds for a Sunday doubleheader.

They could stop off in Huntsville, Ala., to play host to the Atlanta Braves, take on the Cincinnati Reds in Louisville, Ky., borrow back Candlestick Park, now Monster Park, to play the San Francisco Giants.

Monterrey, Mexico, wants a team, and so does San Juan, Puerto Rico. Give them each a game or a series. Let Portland, Ore., get a taste of the big leagues it so dearly wants.

With average salaries well over $1 million, the players on this team would be the hemisphere's highest-paid migrant workers. There's precedent in fiction and fact for a nomadic baseball team.

Philip Roth's 1973 satire, ''The Great American Novel,'' tells the story of the Patriot League, a third major league, with a team called the ''Ruppert Mundys.'' Rendered homeless in 1943 when the club's absentee owners leased their stadium in Port Ruppert, N.J., to the U.S. military for the war effort, the Mundys had to play their entire 154-game schedule on the road.

The Pennsylvania Road Warriors in the Atlantic League have done the same thing in real life.

Roth's Ruppert Mundys had a quirky cast of characters on the roster:

-Frenchy Astarte, a French-Canadian shortstop from Japan;

-Oliver Damur, nicknamed ''Nickname,'' a 14-year-old second baseman weighing 92 pounds;

-John Baal, a first baseman known as the Babe Ruth of the Big House, the son of legendary pitcher Spit Baal and grandson of Base Baal.

-Peter Ptah, mean-tempered and peg-legged, called ''Hot'' by his teammates;

-Mike Rama, the left-fielder who kept crashing into outfield walls;

The Expos-Nationals aren't quite so colorful, nor are they about to become very good with everything stuck in the mud until the team figures out what it's doing and where it's going.

''Don't expect us to spend a lot of money at this point,'' team president Tony Tavares said.

Washington has lost teams twice before: The original Senators became the Minnesota Twins after the 1960 season and the expansion Senators transformed into the Texas Rangers following the 1971 season.

''Here we are back where we were five years ago - the nation's capital, the center of the world, a city of possibility, aspiration and ambition and opportunity, and a city that cannot do what it says it's going to do,'' D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams lamented. ''I'm saddened that we can go so far in five years and step back so far in five minutes.''

Actually, it's not so sad at all. This ''center of the world,'' with so much poverty and crime, has a chance to save a lot of money. The city, the country and baseball might be a lot better off sending this vagabond team on a long road trip.

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org



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