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For Mayor, Baseball Rife With Risk

Skeptics Point to Financing, Other Dire Needs in D.C.

By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 11, 2004; Page A01

In the final hours before he took the historic call from Major League Baseball, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams had time to kill. He stood on the curb outside city hall, fiddling with his pager. A federal worker strolled by, recognized Williams and broke into a grin. "Play ball!" the man offered. But the mayor, who was sick and sleepy and tense, never looked up.

Later, after baseball Commissioner Bud Selig gave the official word that the Montreal Expos would move to the nation's capital, Williams did his best to communicate excitement. He donned a red baseball cap. He staged a celebratory news conference packed with VIPs. He hoisted a replica of home plate over his head.

Supporters say Anthony Williams demonstrated tenacity and vision in his quest for baseball. Skeptics question financing, point to other dire needs in the District. (Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)

But baseball never really became a citywide spectacle. Talk of a pep rally at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium with souvenir T-shirts and hot dogs for the kids went nowhere. Within days, carping about Williams's promise to raise taxes to build a ballpark drowned out the happy news that baseball is back, after 33 years. And what might have been the brightest moment of Williams's tenure as mayor dissolved into another opportunity for critics to take their shots.

Some political observers even opined that the return of baseball would prove to be disastrous for Williams (D) should he seek a third term in 2006. They said it provides a potent symbol for those who argue that the mayor courts the wealthy while neglecting the poor.

"I think people like the idea of having baseball. But they compare it to the absence of quality in the schools, health care, the dereliction of basic public services. And they ask themselves: What's the priority in this city?" said lawyer Bill Lightfoot, a former at-large D.C. Council member who remains an important figure in the city's political establishment. "This is not viewed as a socially redeeming enterprise. It's a play toy for rich people."

Williams's supporters say the mayor demonstrated tenacity and vision in his quest for baseball. They say they are grateful that he had the courage to do what had to be done to get Washington a team. But last week, as Williams announced plans for an 11-day trip to China at the height of the stadium debate, even some of his friends were shaking their heads.

"This should be a politician's dream. He should be jumping up and down, saying, 'Baseball is great for the city, and people who are against it are crazy,' " said Robert A. Peck, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. "That's the thing about the mayor and baseball. It should be a home run. But it will be interesting to see if it turns into a play at the plate."

In an interview last week in his library on the sixth floor of the Wilson Building, Williams ranked the return of baseball among his top 10 achievements as mayor.

Since he took office in 1999, Williams said, he has steered the District back from the brink of bankruptcy and improved city services. The homicide rate has plummeted. And he has created a climate in which developers have been enticed to rebuild downtown and begin branching out to the neighborhoods, bringing stores, restaurants and jobs to some communities for the first time in decades.

The return of baseball, Williams said, is an affirmation of the city's renaissance, "a visible manifestation that the city has now resumed its respect and standing and recognition in the rest of the world."

"How can you be a major league city when you don't have a Major League Baseball team?" Williams said. "It's a symbol -- a signal that we're back as a city." And it's a potential source of pleasure, he said, for "people from every walk of life: young and old, rich and poor, black and white."

All the same, Williams said he recognizes that baseball also has the potential to become a political liability.

"Is there a perception that the mayor only cares about, you know, the rich people in this city? Yes. There is a perception. Left unattended, could [baseball] feed into the perception? Yes," Williams said. "But am I going to allow that lack of public information to persist? No. Am I going to allow that perception to kind of fester on itself? No."

In the coming weeks, Williams plans a public relations offensive to explain his stadium-financing plan to D.C. voters and to council members, who must approve it by Dec. 31 to seal the deal to bring the Expos to Washington for the 2005 season.

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