U.S. Sen. John W. Warner said late yesterday he is optimistic that a compromise can be reached to allow the armed forces to have a sponsorship link to the Washington Nationals but not necessarily to rename the field at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.
Warner (R-Va.) spoke after emerging from a two-hour meeting with officials from the National Guard, the Department of Defense and the District to discuss his concerns about a sponsorship.
On Monday, Warner had objected to reports that the Guard was close to finalizing a three-year, $6 million deal with the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission that would have renamed the stadium National Guard Field at RFK.
"The Department of Defense has never paid to have its name on a building or a field, and it's a precedent that we do not want to initiate with this contract," Warner said yesterday at a news conference, surrounded by city and military officials.
But Warner added that "many aspects of this [sponsorship] could benefit the Armed Forces. . . . There is room here to participate in recruiting in the environment of the stadium and get the support of baseball coming back to Washington."
Negotiations continued last night and could resume today, officials said. The sports commission had hoped to finalize a sponsorship deal before the Nationals play their first home game tomorrow, against the Arizona Diamondbacks, before an expected crowd of 46,000, including President Bush.
"I share the senator's optimism that we can work out an agreement," Chairman Mark H. Tuohey of the sports commission said. The money collected from a sponsorship would go to renovating recreation centers and youth athletic fields throughout the District.
On Monday, Tuohey said the commission had a signed contract with the Guard and plans were being made to announce the deal the next day . But Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, who oversees the Guard, said yesterday that he would not consider the deal a contract.
Sources said that the National Guard initially had been interested in a sponsorship deal with the Nationals that would provide advertising opportunities inside RFK, including recruitment stands. The Guard, which has units in every state and the District, has endured falling enrollment nationwide in recent years.
The sponsorship deal soon grew to include naming rights to the field after the sports commission promised a sign outside the stadium with the Guard's name on it. Most of the endorsement money from the contract would have gone to the commission, with a smaller amount to the Nationals.
But Warner and Blum grew concerned after hearing of the sponsorship in media reports over the weekend.
Blum said yesterday it was appropriate that his subordinates had explored the sponsorship but he felt ultimately that the sponsorship sent the wrong message. The Guard's priorities, Blum said, are recruitment and supporting troops by helping ensure proper equipment and good salaries.
"I was genuinely concerned about the precedent of the National Guard, a tax-supported entity, paying to put the name on a facility," Blum said. "I had a problem with that."
The Army sponsors NASCAR and rodeo events, and some sports facilities honor the military in a broader way, such as the Chicago Bears' Soldier Field.
Blum said that naming RFK's field to honor the military would be appropriate but "we shouldn't have to pay for it. We earned it through our blood."
District officials said that the dollar amount of the sponsorship could change. Also involved in the discussions yesterday were Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), U.S. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Charles S. Abell, deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel.
"Everything is still on the table," said one city official with knowledge of the closed-door talks who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks are ongoing. "But it won't be called National Guard Field."
Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.