washingtonpost.com  > Sports > Columnists > Thomas Boswell
Thomas Boswell

A Big Reality Check

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, December 22, 2004; Page D01

If you're pleased but perplexed by the D.C. Council's narrow, 7-6 vote to fund a new Southeast waterfront ballpark, then you certainly have company. Seldom has celebration been so mixed with skepticism.

Washington and baseball are now locked in a bizarre marriage of inconvenience. The sport finds itself in the novel position of bestowing a team on a town that has responded with a distrustful, lukewarm embrace and a demand for prenuptial agreements.

D.C. councilman Vincent Orange holds a Rickey Henderson photo and bat. Orange said Henderson, who turns 46 on Saturday, would be willing to play for the Nats. (Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

_____MLB Basics_____
Team index
Music Downloads
MLB Section

While the District wonders whether baseball is worth all the expense, baseball wonders if Washington is worth such a headache.

Will this marathon romance, strained by an epic 33-year courtship, end in divorce or happily ever after? No one knows yet.

Commissioner Bud Selig captured the mood of high hopes, mixed with deep ambivalence, yesterday. "First, we get killed all these years for not going to Washington," Selig said in an interview. "Now, we get killed for going there."

For 33 years the saga of baseball's return to Washington has increased in complexity. The cast of characters and subplots grows with time. The idea that there could ever be a final chapter has, for decades, seemed almost inconceivable.

So, it is hard to accept that a one-vote margin on a mammoth $500 million project has actually brought the entire interminable process to a simple old-fashioned happy ending.

Yet that may be what's just happened. At any rate, that is what everybody involved claims, right down to Linda W. Cropp, the council chairman who gained potentially valuable concessions for the District with her brinksmanship.

"We sat down, rolled up our sleeves and got it done," said Mayor Anthony A. Williams of the three-cornered compromises made between baseball, the mayor and Cropp, who has crusaded to bring some degree of private funding into the ballpark deal. Even Williams, who has looked ineffectual in recent weeks, "underscored" the value that Cropp has brought to the process by "drawing international attention to this issue."

Part of the attention has come in the form of laughter and even mockery that Williams and his council can't stay on the same page or even in the same book on a huge deal. In major negotiations, who speaks for Washington? For now, the answer is, "You never know."

Cropp's most valuable contribution may ultimately be her insistence that baseball agree to limit Washington's liability for compensatory damages to a mere $5.3 million if the stadium is not complete in time for the '08 season.

Why is that so important? Because, according to one of the people most involved in researching the timeline for building the District's new ballpark, "Getting the stadium done for '08 is already out of the question. It can't be done and it won't be close. I'd put a ballpark opening in '09 at 50-50." If that pessimistic view proves true, Cropp may save the District $15 million to $30 million.

The Ballpark in Arlington, Tex., (now Ameriquest Field in Arlington), required 36 months to build after ground was broken. The Phillies' new park, on which almost everything went perfectly, took 28 months and was tight right down to Opening Day '04. Anybody who thinks that the District can open a new park 40 months from now is probably dreaming, especially since the team's new owners may not be decided until the middle of this season. That's six to eight months gone right off the top.

Getting a team back in town is exciting. But reality is sobering. The District is probably going to end up with a $540 million park in '09, not the $440 million park in '08 that Williams originally sold to baseball and the council.

CONTINUED    1 2    Next >

© 2004 The Washington Post Company