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Baseball Rejects Council's Changes In Financing Plan for D.C. Stadium

By David Nakamura and Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 16, 2004; Page A01

The president of Major League Baseball last night called the District's legislation for a new stadium "wholly unacceptable" and halted all business and promotional activities for the Washington Nationals until further notice.

Baseball's aggressive response came at the end of a day in which city officials, business leaders and fans contemplated the potential impact of the D.C. Council's decision Tuesday to dramatically alter an agreement negotiated over several months.

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) talks baseball at his weekly news briefing, during which he said the deal with Major League Baseball was in "great, great jeopardy." (Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

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Robert A. DuPuy, baseball's president, appeared to rule out renegotiating with the city. In a statement released last night, DuPuy said the council's decision to require private funds to pay for half the cost of building a stadium "does not reflect the agreement we signed and relied upon."

On the day when the Nationals had planned to unveil new uniforms, baseball instead said it will shut the one store selling Nationals merchandise. DuPuy, citing "the present uncertainty," also told fans that the Nationals would offer refunds on deposits for season tickets.

A baseball official, asked last night if the former Montreal Expos would still play at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in the spring, said even the short-term future of the team in Washington is in peril if the deal falls apart. The D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission has already hired consultants and begun preliminary work as part of an $18.5 million renovation.

If the council's legislation stands, the baseball official said of playing at RFK, "it's fair to assume that's out of the question."

At the John A. Wilson Building, anxiety over the future of baseball in Washington was evident all day. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) pronounced during his morning news conference that the deal was "in great, great jeopardy." Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D), the architect of the legislative amendment that required private funding, said she was "looking to reduce the cost and risk for the District."

"I keep hearing that we had a deal with baseball," Cropp said. "Well, I have had a 30-year-plus deal with the citizens of this city. That deal trumps any other consideration with Major League Baseball."

In the afternoon, mayoral aides huddled for an hour with allies on the council to discuss strategy. Administration officials, meanwhile, fielded calls from baseball executives.

Bud Selig, baseball's commissioner, conducted a conference call with DuPuy; John McHale Jr., the executive vice president; Thomas Ostertag, baseball's counsel; and Jerry Reinsdorf, the owner of the Chicago White Sox and the chief negotiator in the deal with the District. Baseball executives described Selig as furious with the city.

DuPuy said baseball will wait until Dec. 31, the original deadline for the District to approve the stadium package, before entertaining new offers for the relocation of the former Montreal Expos.

"Based on the position we were put in by the council action, either we make it work or there is no baseball," said Chris Bender, a spokesman for Williams. "I think it's clear we have 15 days, and all of us -- the executive, legislative branch and baseball -- have got to move to the middle and find a consensus and figure it out."

At his news conference, Williams stressed that he will fight over the next week to ensure that the deal does not collapse. But he added that "we had a deal, and now it's broken. The dream of 33 years is close to dying."

Cropp, in her own news conference, reiterated that she was not satisfied with baseball's concessions, which were delivered in a letter Tuesday morning. Baseball had agreed to a cap of $19 million a year for compensatory damages the city would pay if the stadium is not completed by March 2008. But, Cropp said, baseball officials did not agree to share the responsibility of paying cost overruns of building the stadium.

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