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.
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.