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Dec. 16, 2004

In a flash, D.C. baseball deal is near collapse

by Michael Bushnell, Page Editor
The news was stunning as it came out on Wednesday morning. After two years of the city selling itself to baseball, after all that time spent on finally landing a baseball team in the District for the first time since Richard Nixon was president, the deal might be broken for good. Just like that.

How did it happen? Well, it happened in the dark of night on Tuesday evening, when the council caved in to Chairman Linda W. Cropp’s (D) proposal that half of the funding for the estimated $530 million Anacostia stadium be privately funded.

Cropp said she would only vote “yes” on the funding if the amendment was passed, which it was. The whole measure was passed by just one vote, seven to six.

But that doesn’t even matter. Major League Baseball moved the Montreal Expos to Washington because they had the best proposed stadium and financing plan. Cropp’s amendment is in stark contrast to what was agreed on in the first place. Councilman Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) put it best when he said that her plan was “in direct violation of our deal.”

Nevertheless, it is what it is. And the future of D.C. baseball is bleak at best, but most likely nil, at least for this Nationals franchise. The whole plan to move the team to Washington hinged on the public funding, which was widely expected to pass as it was.

It didn’t pass the way it was, and now the Nationals may be one and done in Washington. After all the years of waiting, and all the excitement over a team, after the sale of 17,000 season tickets and $13 million in renovations to RFK Stadium (where the Nats will play in 2005), the team may be on its way out nearly as fast as it came in.

The Nashville Nats has a nice ring, doesn’t it?

Basically, unless a phantom owner comes in by New Year’s Eve on his white horse and puts up at least $265 million for a stadium that might make him money in 2019, the relocation process will start all over, with Washington being left with a couple script “W” hats and a load of embarrassment.

As it looks now, the Nationals will have no choice but to play in Washington in 2005. But after that, it seems that the city will be left high and dry thanks to Cropp’s horrible amendment.

Her deal has all but killed the hopes of long-term baseball in D.C. No prospective owner out there would ever want to buy this team, with no stadium certainty. The last guy to try and build a major stadium in Washington was Jack Kent Cooke, who failed in his attempt and had to build the Redskins’ stadium in non-descript Landover.

Cropp had good intentions. She's right; there's no reason why D.C. taxpayers should spend all this new tax money on a baseball stadium, when that money could be spent to help schools and other more immediate interests in the District.

Most District residents agree with Cropp, but the way she absolutely blindsided the city was wrong. Why at the very last second?

There are other cities in this country that want Major League Baseball. Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman (D-NV) was at last week’s baseball winter meetings, pitching his city to the Florida Marlins, who will be forced to move if they aren’t playing in a new Miami stadium in 2011.

Besides, why would an owner want to shell out that much for a new stadium, on top of the costs of running a team? There’s a large risk that the stadium won’t generate much new revenue around the Anacostia area.

Add to the fact that Orioles owner Peter Angelos wants millions of dollars from the sport and Nationals owner for encroaching his baseball territory, and it would make much more financial sense for an owner to start somewhere else.

No financially wise person would buy the team from MLB in the state it’s in now, and as a result, baseball’s motivation to move the team to Washington has evaporated.

Even D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams (D), the most outspoken proponent of D.C. baseball, said that the future of baseball in Washington was in “great jeopardy.” Williams also acknowledged that the city “had a deal and now it's broken. The dream of 33 years is close to dying.”

At this point the dream was real, and 99% there. 17,000 season tickets had been purchased; the team had a new name, new logos, and a new front office staff. The league owners had voted 28-1 to move the team to Washington. All it took was a few “yes” votes by the council and baseball would be back.

Nationals outfielder Terrmel Sledge was supposed to be at the ESPN Zone on E Street on Wednesday to model the new uniforms for the team, but that event was postponed indefinitely. The Nats announced they will suspend all ticket and merchandise sales, and they closed their only team store; a heated trailer outside RFK Stadium.

Now it will take a Herculean effort to undo what Cropp has done. I can understand why she did this; a lot of people think spending all this money in new taxes could be a very bad financial move for the city down the road. But why did she wait until the very last second to speak up?

On Tuesday night, Cropp blew apart the most important factor in landing the team: the promise of a new ballpark. And just like that, it will take a genuine Christmas Miracle on F Street to save the team in D.C.

All baseball will be left with is a lame-duck team in Washington for two years, if at all, and the shame of the most embarrassing relocation gaffe in North American sports history.

This debacle tops the St. Louis Blues’ move to Saskatchewan being axed by the NHL at the very last second, it tops every other planned team move ever.

Why? Because Major League Baseball was in the city’s grasps. The whole franchise had moved, set up shop here, cut all its ties with Montreal and was ready to start up in D.C. after 33 years of anticipation.

And with one person’s objection, it’s all about to be gone.

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  • Jachinn (View Email) on December 16, 2004
    It’s amazing that no one is concerned about the tax payers, but one lone council woman. While everyone is willing to admit this venture is going to loose money for the next 12-14 years, which you have on record in this article.
    After all why are they considering moving at all, because they are a great team that wants to spread the wealth, please!
    Why should the burden of supporting a weak, unsuccessful, and loosing major league team should be placed on the backs of the local government and more importantly on people who can hardly make it from day to day.
    Can anyone but the council woman hear the sucking sound, or is everyone who are for this move in the first place, Baseball Challenged?
  • bob (View Email) on December 16, 2004
    Finally!!! Someone steps up to the plate and want to have a business? FINE! Buy your own building and pay for it with your own money. NOT TAXPAYER MONEY! Period!

    Thanks for letting me vent.

  • Frank Hill (View Email) on December 16, 2004
    Yeah, well, you know, local politics -
    Montgomery County, Silver Spring, Takoma Park
    - have always meant more to loco local
    politicos than pass times ... local, regional,
    national, whatever. Just think, the old
    Blair campus might have been the home of
    Major League Blazers! Wow!

    Thanks, Frank ... Blair '55
  • Eric Blade (View Email) on December 16, 2004
    Hey.. there's a perfectly good baseball stadium in.. MONTREAL... that could be used still.

    Or, how about Michigan? Tiger Stadium is still standing, and is still the best place in the world to watch a game...
  • Joe Brooks (View Email) on December 16, 2004
    Sorry, Michael, but you're wrong. It's not because of one person's objection. It's because of the objection of 7 people who are representing their constituency's majority wishes. The bottom line is that D.C. can't afford the luxury of major league baseball and and that fact is being acknowledeged by the council majority. Yes, major league baseball is a "nice to have" but it is not a necessity not even when it is wrapped in the quality of life mantle
  • Ray Denenberg (View Email) on December 16, 2004
    The DC council says there are higher priorities than baseball -- schools, hospitals, drinking water... The irony is that this deal was their best opportunity to address these priorities.

    It's not as though there is a bucket of money to be spent either to build a stadium or to improve schools/hospitals/etc. and they chose the latter. Baseball in DC would have provided the ecomomic revitalization so that these critical sevices could improve.

    Let's take a look five years from now to see if there's any improvement. No, the schools will continue to deteriorate, hospitals will continue to close, the drinking water will become more poisonous, affluent people will move to the suburbs, and the city will never recover from this national emabassment.

  • Aaron (View Email) on December 17, 2004
    Ray, not only are you right about this, you leave out a major point. What makes ANYBODY think that schools would be improved when they've been promising this for the past decade and if anything, schools have gotten WORSE!

    Joe, how do you know what the people in DC want? I do not trust Cropp for a second when she says that "almost all of my constituents support me and the only people who dislike this are those out in the suburbs." I think that if it was put to a vote where regular people could vote, not the people sitting high and mighty in City Hall, that they would vote on getting a team.

    What I really, REALLY want to know, is why she supported it so staunchly before, and now, 2 weeks before the deadline for the stadium, she pulls this garbage. If she had said this from the beginning, that'd be one thing. But in September, she was considered one of Williams' biggest allies in this deal. It makes absoloutely no sense whatsoever.

    Jachinn, what basis do you use to say that they are a "weak, unsuccessful, and loosing major league team". First off, when a team moves, things change. Once they get an owner, they will have money to actually pay for players, rather than relying on the other 29 owners to pay for them. They've already made a splash in the free agent market this winter, and will do more wherever they end up. To answer your question "why should the burden be placed on the backs of the local government and more importantly on people who can hardly make it from day to day." Because Washington DC AGREED to. Plain and simple, they made a business deal with Major League Baseball. Once the agreement was made, it should be final unless you are willing to sacrifice the team.

    Until someone can actually show me facts that the people in Washington don't want the stadium, my opinion doesn't change. I truly believe that if it came to a vote, they'd want it. And nothing that witch could say will make me change my mind.

    Oh, and they'll end up in Vegas or Portland, they have minor league sites that they can convert.
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