washingtonpost.com  > Sports > Columnists > Sally Jenkins

Baseball's Mind Game

By Sally Jenkins
Tuesday, December 21, 2004; Page D01

The baseball controversy had a funhouse mirror effect on the District. Everything was distorted and inverted. The skinny looked fat and the fat looked skinny, and common sense was called ridiculous, and all the wrong people were blamed. It's time to bust the funhouse mirror, preferably with a baseball bat, and look at this thing straight on. Place the blame for the uncertainty of the past weeks where it belongs, on a mayor who was a cheerleader for a bunch of extortionist MLB owners, and give credit where it's due, to a lone council head who did her job and stood up to all of them.

These past few weeks, Chairman Linda W. Cropp was accused of having malign ambition. For most of Washington, according to a startling Washington Post poll published yesterday, she was the villain. But last night Cropp won concessions from MLB and a new D.C. Council vote is expected today. As it turns out, she not only did her job, but Mayor Anthony A. Williams's, too.

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What on earth was acceptable about a deal that demanded the city publicly raise as much as $584 million for a stadium project -- so the owners could sell the team for a couple of hundred million in personal profit? Let me get this straight: The city was supposed to build the stadium but could use it for only 12 days a year? And if anything went wrong in building it on time, the city was supposed to pay a fine?

Are you kidding me?

These are the sensible questions that Cropp and some council members asked -- and yet they were brutally criticized for undermining the city's dignity. If you wanted to get mad at somebody about the delay in finalizing the deal, get mad at Commissioner Bud Selig and the rest of his arrogant pals. Despite all the panic and recriminations, it appears the team will wind up here anyway, and under appreciably better terms than those originally drawn up by MLB and Williams, its head pom-pom waver.

"The final legislation . . . will offer the significantly lower costs and reduced risks to the District of Columbia that many of us said we were searching for," Cropp said last night.

Now, I'm not a resident of the District. I live in New York City. Does this make me different from my friends and fellow columnists Michael Wilbon, who lives in Bethesda, or Tom Boswell, who lives in Annapolis, or Tony Kornheiser, who lives in the District? Probably. I have not been as emotionally invested in whether the District gets a team. I saw the events in Washington from a greater distance, for better or worse.

And I was aghast at what I saw.

I saw a bunch of baseball honchos, led by Selig and his dealmaker Jerry Reinsdorf, who treated the nation's capital like a sucker ripe for rooking, and took its mayor for a sap. I saw a mayor who made promises to both sides that he couldn't keep and agreed to terms he never should have -- and that Rudy Giuliani surely would not have tolerated.

I saw a D.C. Council that knows its mayor all too well and sniffed warily at the reek of this deal, even as some of its members stood on the podium next to him and put Nationals caps on their heads. Several council members who were at the celebration, including Cropp, said in no uncertain terms they needed to study the stadium financing plan before they decided how to vote on it. And when Cropp did look at it, and decided she didn't like it, she was called a backstabber.

I saw a haughty baseball commissioner who extracted profoundly onerous and even insulting concessions from the city -- "the sweetheart deal of all sweetheart deals" as one baseball exec put it -- and who then piled discourtesy on top of insult. Instead of understanding that he had overreached and there was mounting opposition to the deal, Selig ignored the council and treated its members like an irrelevance.

I saw council members who went back to their wards to sell the plan and were confronted by angry shouting crowds at civic association meetings and polls that indicated significant opposition to public funding. I saw the city's chief financial officer, Natwar M. Gandhi, staring at the numbers and realizing that the mayor's office had underestimated the cost by as much as $100 million. I saw small business executives bitterly complaining that the plan taxed them unfairly.

I saw trouble gather like a thunderhead for weeks and baseball executives ignore it. I saw the D.C. Council choking on the notion of public financing, and in need of some small concession to feel better about it. Instead on Dec. 2, Selig came to Washington and declared icily that baseball would not reopen negotiations. Cropp sat right next to Selig -- and he barely spoke to her. Where was Williams? He was out of town -- again.

I saw a city that had finally had enough, and stood up for itself. Baseball's initial refusal to make a single significant concession, to amend the most onerous parts of the single worst deal in the history of cities, was the real deal-breaker that threatened to cost the city a baseball team. Not Cropp's insistence on concessions. In a story on Sunday examining the imperiled deal by The Post's Lori Montgomery, D.C. Council members who had once been friendly toward MLB were irate at its refusal to concede a nickel.

"They clearly take us as fools," said council member Carol Schwartz.

"This isn't about the sport," councilman-elect Vincent C. Gray said yesterday. "This is about greed. If the deal that's on the table loses baseball for the District of Columbia, good riddance."

Another observer has been watching baseball's dealings with Washington from afar, without the funhouse mirror effect. Ralph Nader fired off a pair of letters on Friday, one to Cropp urging her not to buckle under to criticism and to stand firm against baseball, and another to Selig and his fellow pirates, calling them out as the real villains in this affair.

"What was your answer to the council? No concessions on sharing cost overruns. No concessions on the compensatory payment by the District to the team if the stadium is not completed on time. And no charitable fund commitment beyond devoting 'net proceeds' from one exhibition game. That is simply offensive. No paltry concessions from you in exchange for a $584 million publicly funded stadium project? No longer surprised by your level of avarice, we must express amazement at your unrelenting arrogance."

Yesterday, MLB blinked. Cropp won the main concessions she sought: time for the city to seek private funding and relief from heavy liability if something goes wrong with the stadium construction and it is not finished on schedule. It's still nobody's idea of the perfect deal, but at least it's better. The result is clear and undistorted by the funhouse mirror: The nation's capital now has both a team, and some shred of dignity.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company