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Marc Fisher

It's Time, Bud, To Serve Up Concessions

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, December 16, 2004; Page B01

D ear Commissioner Selig,

Now that you've blown off steam about how you're already looking to move the Nationals elsewhere, and after you finish with your I-told-you-so's about how it was pure folly to put a team in Washington, let's face facts. It's your team, and you can walk. And you're right to be ticked off: You've been double-crossed by politicians who knew precisely what the deal was. They told you that you'd get a free, city-paid stadium and now, thanks to D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp, you won't.

That said, you're in a pickle. If you had anywhere else to go that made even a smidgen of sense, you'd have gone there instead of here. Your team is pretty well stuck here for one season, and your options aren't great. Puerto Rico was a bust for the wandering Montreal Expos. Vegas has gambling baggage, New Jersey means fighting Steinbrenner, Virginia's out of the game.

Marc Fisher can be reached by e-mail at marcfisher@washpost.com or by phone at (202) 334-7563.

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Owners want the money they put into the Expos, and a big return to boot. You need Washington because it's a huge, rich market that's perfect for baseball.

Right now, only Peter Angelos (some people always win) and Cropp look like winners. (Cropp is some savvy player, huh? If the Nationals bail out, she's an urban folk hero for saving her constituents a half-billion bucks; if a miracle happens and they stay, she can say she forced the concessions.)

But you can win and still make your coin. First, you must understand you are dealing not with the supremely confident capital of the free world, but an ailing city with a pathological aversion to change and deep anxieties about race, class and the urban-suburban divide.

It's easy to blame Cropp, and she deserves your wrath. But you contributed mightily to this outcome, and so did Mayor Anthony Williams. All the parties in this deal lost control when all of you allowed baseball to become a symbol for this city's divisive debate about gentrification, class and the return of whites to a city from which they fled when the Washington Senators were here. Once that became the subtext of the baseball debate, your deal was in political intensive care.

"No question," City Administrator Robert Bobb said when I asked him whether those who fear gentrification had managed to capture the baseball issue. "There is definitely a link, and we have to do a lot more about gentrification. That's an area where we're losing in public perception."

Maybe you're telling yourself that if Cropp and other D.C. politicians felt free to spit on your deal, then Washington doesn't want baseball. Don't fall into that trap. Cropp said yesterday that her phone has been ringing off the hook with howls of outrage about her sabotage of the deal. But she quickly noted that most of the calls have come from the 301 and 703 area codes. "It's the suburban area, people from Maryland and Virginia who do not have to pay for the stadium," Cropp said. "My constituents want baseball to come . . . but they feel that this is a lousy deal."

Cropp and the nine other council members who went along with her switcheroo on the deal were emboldened by this fall's election of three new council members who oppose baseball and ran against Mayor Williams's emphasis on development. You have fallen victim to a highly localized political battle that has little to do with your business.

You're playing hardball now. But if you reach out just a little bit, you can do yourself, your game and this city a world of good. Baseball has lost more than a generation of black fans. The sport is perceived as largely a white guy's game and judging by who shows up at your ballparks, that perception is right. You know that's not sustainable. You need a fix. Washington is your chance to make things right.

It won't cost you much money. It will require you to swallow hard and make nice. You would have to give the District a few months to seek private financing, and you should help with that, perhaps even obligating the new team owner to kick in some money and give back the ballpark naming rights.

What you'd gain far outweighs those small concessions: a place in the nation's richest, best-educated region. A fresh start with black America. Credit for being something other than a selfish greedhead. A ballgame to take members of Congress to when they're hot about steroids. And huge piles of cash from a market that led three pro sports leagues in attendance last year.

Don't be small. Show off that new team uniform. Call the mayor. Go Nats.

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