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Original Issue

A Celestial decision in Houston

The Celestial Suite on the top floor of the Astroworld Hotel in Houston, served by a private elevator, costs its occupants $2,500 a day. Last week it joined the list of memorable locations in which major league baseball has come uneasily to grips with large affairs. It was in Le Salon Bleu of the Savoy Hilton Hotel in New York that the Yankees announced Casey Stengel was leaving—only to have Casey say later he was fired. In the Comstock Room of the Sheraton-Palace in San Francisco, Commissioner William Eckert was rudely decommissioned. In the Lancaster Room of the Sheraton-O'Hare in Rosemont, Ill. the American League decided a year ago to play with 10 men instead of nine.

Last week the Celestial news was that Washington, for 71 years an American League town, was going National League, and that the San Diego Padres no longer existed. No doubt the usual trail of litigation will follow the Padres to the capital, but for the moment, at least, Washington is first in war, first in peace and last in the National League West.

Exactly 13 years had elapsed since the California Angels became the first American League team to intrude upon the National League sanctuary out West. With the addition of Oakland and San Diego the state had become overpopulated with big-league teams, but the Padres' pullout is nevertheless damaging to the National League's prestige.

And the Baltimore Orioles, a grand but unappreciated team that has trouble drawing fans, must now fight for its spectators and television dollars against a league that will exhibit Henry Aaron, Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Willie Stargell, Tom Seaver, Bobby Bonds and Cesar Cedeno, among others, right next door.

Are there enough fans in Washington to support the Senpads? Maybe. Maybe not, too. The last club to play in Robert F. Kennedy Stadium drew only 43,000 more people than San Diego could muster last season, and that was a mere 612,000. But there are other considerations. Baseball has worried about the flight of the Senators from Washington and the sour taste this might have left with congressmen pondering tacky franchise shifts and Supreme Court justices studying the reserve clause. However, this time the National League did not want to go to Washington at all. It simply found itself in a situation over which it had very little control.

In May the Padres, owned by California wheeler-dealer C. Arnholt Smith, announced that they intended to move to Washington at the end of the season. Smith agreed then to sell the franchise to Joseph Danzansky, head of the Giant Food supermarket chain. Just two years ago Danzansky had tried to buy the Senators from Bob Short before he moved that inept group to Texas, but the American League turned him down. Now Danzansky was offering $12 million for the Padres.

But the National League did not really want to move the Padres in these circumstances—there was bound to be legal trouble with the city of San Diego over the team's long-term stadium lease—and when a group headed by Marjorie Everett offered to buy the club and keep it in town, many assumed it would stay.

League owners had four alternatives when they went up into the Celestial Suite. The first was to judge whether Smith himself, despite the disarray of his financial empire, might be able to find new backing for the Padres and continue as owner. The second was to approve the sale to Danzansky. The third was to consider the Everett bid. The fourth and most desperate was for the league to buy and operate the Padres until a more satisfactory option than any of the other three could be found.

On closer examination alternatives three and four were not alternatives at all. Most of the owners were strongly opposed to a sale to Mrs. Everett, once the operator of Chicago racetracks, because of the Kerner affair (former Illinois Governor Otto Kerner had gone to jail in part for accepting stock in Mrs. Everett's tracks at bargain-basement prices), and they figured that if the league were to buy the Padres, difficulties would be endless. For example, it would be impossible to contrive a practical method of making player trades.

The first informal vote was 7-4 for Washington—two votes short of the required nine—with San Diego ineligible to participate. An educated guess as to how the vote split is that the Dodgers, Mets, Cubs and Expos were opposed, while the Pirates, Phillies, Cardinals and Astros were for the transfer. The remaining three clubs basically were dissatisfied with all alternatives but willing to say a reluctant aye to Washington.

Near midnight Wednesday, John Holt, Smith's lawyer, called him and advised him to sell. It was then that Smith gave up his last hope of keeping the team. When word reached the other owners the next morning they voted unanimously that the sale to Danzansky be approved—on condition that Smith be responsible for up to $5 million of any indemnities won by San Diego.

The influence of Mrs. Everett will nevertheless be felt. Anticipating the sweet uses of her bankroll, the Padres had done a spectacular job of collecting hitters prior to the Houston meetings. Danzansky's $12 million may be used up in balls lost in batting practice by May, for the Senpads now have Willie McCovey, Bobby Tolan, Glenn Beckert and Matty Alou to go with Nate Colbert, the .311-hitting rookie John Grubb, and second-year man Dave Roberts, who hit 21 homers in 1973. And when those bats start swinging in Kennedy Stadium, a home-run paradise, oh, boy. But many things will happen to the new Washington team, too, for of the pitchers left from last year's woeful Padres, none can be considered first class.

Houston's Celestial cerebration was by no means confined to the San Diego mess. Some teeth were finally put into the spitball rule. An umpire may now act solely on suspicion that a "foreign substance" is being put on the ball by a pitcher. Upon so suspecting, the umpire calls the pitch a ball, walks to the mound, warns the pitcher, and then has that warning announced to the crowd. The second time it happens the pitcher "shall be disqualified from the game and shall additionally be subject to such other penalties as may be imposed by the league office."

Undoubtedly the new ruling is due to the moist reputation of Cleveland's Gaylord Perry, and it surely reduces Perry's value in the marketplace. Two teams went to Houston hoping to get him. Boston wanted him to help fight champion Baltimore in the American League East. The Orioles wanted Gaylord to block Boston from getting him. Once the rule was changed, however, the Orioles backed off and picked up 23-year-old lefthander Ross Grimsley from the Reds. In three seasons with Cincinnati, Grimsley has yet to have a losing record and his overall mark is 37-25.

Boston, which had already traded Reggie Smith to St. Louis for Pitcher Rick Wise, talked and talked to the Indians about Perry. Then the Red Sox made two spectacular moves. First they went back to the Cardinals and dealt three fine pitching prospects, lefthander John Curtis and righthanders Lynn McGlothen and Mike Garman, for Reggie Cleveland, Reliever Diego Segui and Infielder Terry Hughes. Cleveland came within one pitch of a perfect game last season, and Wise, who has already pitched one no-hitter, had another going against the Reds last June with only two outs to get in the ninth inning. Cleveland seldom walks a batter; in Fenway Park such ability usually proves to be golden. Next, the Red Sox bought Juan Marichal from the Giants to complete a corps that may give Baltimore fits.

Of the 102 players dealt from the end of the season up to the deadline for inter-league trading, 49 were pitchers. Much of the most frantic bargaining involved lefthanders, emphasizing just how precious a commodity a good lefty is. Seven of the top 11 RBI men in the American League are left-handed batters, and many of the National League's top lead-off men and base-stealers either bat left-handed or switch-hit. To say nothing about such fellows as Willie Stargell, Darrell Evans, Al Oliver and McCovey.

One thing that did not occur in Houston was a resolution of the Dick Williams-Charlie Finley-New York Yankee crisis. That situation, said outgoing American League President Joe Cronin, might be one which could simmer all the way to the "courthouse steps."

Or to a room to be named later.