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Michael Wilbon

Caught Between Cropp and a Hard Place

By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, December 16, 2004; Page D01

It's a great idea that private money finance at least 50 percent of the cost of a new riverfront baseball stadium. It's a smart idea to protect the District from millions of dollars in penalties resulting from some phony stadium construction deadline that is unlikely to be met. It's common sense and good business to challenge a bunch of fat-cat Major League Baseball owners on every clause and every dollar asked for when spending $500 million or more on anything non-essential that includes a playpen for multi-millionaires.

But the time to do that was before agreeing to a deal. The time to say no was before, not after. The time for Linda Cropp to ask for amendments and show the city how tough (not to mention ambitious) she is was before Mayor Anthony A. Williams and other city officials agreed to do it baseball's way. If you're that tough, that smart and so creative as to come up with these measures now, why wasn't that done two months ago? Why not 10 months ago?

MLB's Robert DuPuy, on amendment: "The legislation is inconsistent with our carefully negotiated agreement." (Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)

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See, it's not like Major League Baseball caught the District by surprise. It's not even like MLB has been stalking D.C. looking to put a team here.

People in the District have been asking for a team, its local politicians and residents and more than a few of its business leaders. When I came here to work as an intern in the summer of 1979, the first thing I noticed was the humidity and the second thing I noticed was the wailing for baseball. For more than 30 years, D.C. has been a beggar. The District tried to steal other folks' teams. The city and its representatives lobbied for expansion teams. Baseball team owners used the threat of moving to D.C. as leverage to get shiny new publicly funded stadiums and stay put.

So D.C. politicians have had a long, long time to take the temperature of this town and figure out who wants baseball and who wants it at what cost. It's not like the negotiations for a new stadium caught Cropp or anybody else by surprise. Mayor Williams should have figured out how to secure the votes even if Cropp undermined him, which she has. And Cropp should have made her objections known before a deal was agreed to, though her zealous public pronouncements on the day the deal was announced are unforgettable for anybody who watched her perform.

While Williams clearly wants this stadium and the urban renewal that would flow from it to be a huge part of his legacy as mayor, he's not a win-at-any-cost, backroom-dealing, vote-swapping cat. Maybe that's what's needed in this case, somebody who is willing to put blood on the floor to get a deal, and Williams doesn't strike me as that vicious. I like and respect the mayor and his conciliatory, consensus-building demeanor. But maybe he doesn't have the stomach for this kind of fight. Maybe you need somebody whose bite is every bit as damaging as Cropp's.

I know Tom Boswell thinks MLB should take this team and put it anywhere people are capable of keeping a promise once there are handshakes. And I know Kornheiser believes that should the team ever get to RFK and begin drawing 30,000 minimum for almost every game, it'll be hard (and perhaps even bad business) to take the team away.

But if this becomes a matter of calling baseball's bluff, I don't think the folks who want the game here are going to like the results. For the longest time baseball wanted no part of D.C., then relented, then got kneecapped. It's akin to finally agreeing to a date with somebody who has stalked you for five years, then being stood up.

My position on baseball has always been that I'll believe it when the players are on the field. I'm with Boswell most of the way on this one. Baseball in D.C. is soooo close, you can smell the Cracker Jacks and the freshly cut grass. It would be a shame to go through this big civic hug, then watch the team be re-awarded to a city like Las Vegas.

And that must be more than a mild possibility now. The statement released by MLB's Bob DuPuy didn't sound to me like baseball is messing around. "The legislation is inconsistent with our carefully negotiated agreement and is wholly unacceptable to Major League Baseball," DuPuy said.

See, there's nothing unclear about that. Nothing is left to the imagination. There's no wiggle room or space to read between the lines. When you tell what amounts to a subsidiary to cease business and promotional activities, as MLB told the Nationals yesterday, it's serious. When a sports enterprise says it is willing to refund ticket money to anybody who has already put down a deposit, as MLB told the Nationals to do yesterday, it isn't saying, "Well, let's see if we can appease Chairman Cropp."

Baseball, very likely, won't be here long -- if it gets here at all. And how cruel would that be, to beg and grovel for a team for 30 years and watch it be snatched away.

Last weekend I ran into a very smart man who knows the D.C. Council, and Chairman Cropp, very well. He likes her tremendously. He told me, promised me, she was going to make sure this deal wasn't killed. It would turn out, he said, that she would save D.C. perhaps as much as tens of millions of dollars and still get the deal done. She knew exactly what she was doing, he told me. I said I hoped so, and if that indeed turned out to be the case I'd reassess my criticism that Cropp was a raging egomaniac with her own personal agenda and that her bait-and-switch tactic was insulting and wouldn't work.

So here we are, fewer than three weeks from the end of the year and Cropp is still trying to rewrite the deal and MLB is staring her down, without blinking, and telling her she's not going to get a new deal, only the one her city agreed to.

There are plenty of reasons to not publicly finance a new stadium of any kind. But that decision should have been made before two partners danced this long. When the music stops -- and we seem to be nearing the end of this song -- somebody's foot is going to be crunched and I don't think it'll be baseball's.

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