Imagine if the names of franchise greats inscribed on the mezzanine of Nationals Park included Dave Winfield, Ozzie Smith and Willie McCovey. What if, instead of tracing its roots back to Montreal, Washington's baseball team had its origins in San Diego?
It might have happened if the dreams of Washington baseball fans 45 summers ago has come true, instead of ending in one of many heartbreaks for the city.
The story began on May 28, 1973 when The Washington Post greeted readers with the headline, "Baseball's Back! San Diego Padres Play Here in '74." It topped an Associated Press story that reported a group headed by then Giant Food president Joseph Danzansky had agreed to buy the Padres for $12 million and planned to move the team to the nation's capital.
Danzansky had failed in a bid to by the expansion Senators from Bob Short before they left town for Texas just two years earlier. Washington fans had stormed the field at the team's final game at RFK Stadium, causing a forfeit to the Yankees, and heckled short when the Rangers returned to the East Coast to play in Baltimore. To say they were hungry for baseball was an understatement.
Meanwhile the Padres, a 1969 expansion team, were struggling on the field, headed for their fourth straight sixth-place finish in the National League West, and financially, as well. Their owner, bank mogul Arnholt Smith was broke and being sued for $23 million by the IRS as a result of the biggest bank failure in U.S. history to that date.
Smith was close to then-President Richard Nixon, who would write a letter to National League president Chub Feeney, approving of the move and pledging support on behalf of a city that had lost its second major league franchise less then two years earlier.
Peter Bavasi, who would succeed his father, Emil "Buzzy" Bavasi as team president the next year and go on to become president of the Toronto Blue Jays in their 1990s heyday, set up shop in Washington. The organization even designed uniforms with "Washington" on the chest in red letters, outlined in white, with red, white and blue piping on the sleeves. A minor league pitcher named Dave Freisleben modeled the uniform in photos. A version of the uniform is on display on the club level at Nationals Park.
Baseball card maker Topps was also convinced that the Padres were moving to Washington, including in its 660-piece 1974 set cards with photos of San Diego players in their brown and mustard uniforms with a team name of "Washington Nat'l Lea." Despite opposition from Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley and Cubs owner Phillip Wrigley, NL owners gave conditional approval for the move in December and drew up a schedule with the new Washington team hosting Philadelphia on April 4, 1974.
But the dream ended there. The Padres still had 15 years left on their lease in San Diego, and mayor Pete Wilson and city leaders weren't going to let them out of it. They threatened to sue the team and the National League for $72 million, debts the owners could not cover. Forced to find an owner who would keep the team in San Diego, the Padres eventually accepted a $12 million offer from McDonald's owner Ray Kroc in January 1974.
The deal would render as trivia the Topps 1974 error set, the photos of Freisleben in uniform and the dreams of Washington baseball fans of having baseball anytime soon.
For the next 30 years, there would be other false hopes in negotiations for many teams, as well as in the expansions of 1977, 1993 and 1998, before the announcement in September 2004 that Expos would move in 2005 and become the Nationals, returning baseball to the nation's capital.
Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. Follow him on Twitter: @martyball98. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.