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One Guarantee Sparked Larger Baseball Battle

$19 Million Penalty Fueled Resentment on D.C. Council

By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2004; Page A01

The long, dark spiral into chaos that engulfed the D.C. baseball deal began, ironically, with an act of goodwill.

D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp asked Major League Baseball to make concessions on a stadium agreement signed in September. Baseball officials agreed. The list of deal-sweeteners delivered to Cropp on Tuesday ranged from self-serving to substantial, such as allowing the District to seek some private financing for the new stadium.


A banner hangs along East Capitol St. SE in reaction to an amendment from D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp. (Jay Premack -- The Washington Post)


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Then the council came to focus on Item 7: If the city failed to build a ballpark for the former Montreal Expos by March 2008, it would have to pay the team as much as $19 million a year to cover lost profits.

From Major League Baseball's perspective, that was a big concession to the city. The stadium agreement places no limit on the city's liability if the ballpark isn't ready by 2008.

To certain council members, however, Item 7 looked like a hoax -- a big, fat thumb in the eye of an unsuspecting city. If baseball were offering to cap lost profits at $19 million, the members said, then $19 million must be exactly what baseball expected to receive all along. Besides, why should there be a late fee of any kind? The city's paying for the whole stadium.

Item 7 wasn't a concession, it was an insult, they contended. Cropp agreed and plunged the deal to bring baseball back to the nation's capital into crisis.

With a Dec. 31 deadline looming, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) plans to broker a meeting tomorrow between Cropp (D) and baseball officials. To right the deal, he must overcome vast stores of anger and distrust accumulated between two cultures alien to one another.

Williams was expected to bridge that divide. But Williams is terrible at skid-greasing and backroom politics, some council members have said. He repeatedly has failed to sell his grandest ideas to them or their constituents -- people who want a baseball team, but not if it makes them feel as if they have been fleeced.

The stadium package should not have been a tough sell, council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said. The deal is generous to baseball but places no burden on the average taxpayer, he said. The only taxes in the deal would be paid by fans, including many suburbanites, the federal government and large businesses.

"We have a way to build the stadium that costs the District basically nothing. It works out fine. But that's all been lost in the hype and the rhetoric," said Evans, the mayor's chief ally on the council. "People are being swayed by their emotional reaction to the fact that billionaires are making more money."

From the start, baseball has inflamed those emotions. Baseball officials never have addressed District residents or lobbied the council directly, and they rarely speak openly to reporters. They declined to comment for this article.

Many council members said they believe baseball Commissioner Bud Selig has taken advantage of the District, and they view the so-called list of concessions delivered last week to the city as another sign of contempt.

"They clearly take us as fools. That letter didn't say anything new," said council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), who dominated debate over Item 7 during a marathon council session, at which Cropp dramatically altered the stadium legislation by requiring that private funds cover at least half the cost of a new stadium.

"In their eyes," council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) said, "we must be something beneath dogcatchers."


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