As a minor league catcher, William L. Collins III loved crouching at the rough and dusty hub of the game.
Three decades later, the pugnacious and politically minded Collins, who played for the Shreveport Captains and the San Antonio Brewers, is relying on the same instinct in his bid to bring Major League Baseball to Northern Virginia.
William L. Collins III, leader of the Virginia Baseball Club, speaks at the Babe Ruth World Series banquet at Loudoun Valley High School in Purcellville.
(Katherine Frey For The Washington Post)
The partnership Collins leads has spent more than a decade and $13 million trying to buy a baseball team. After a succession of long shots and near misses, and a run of refinements and reinventions, Collins says his Virginia Baseball Club is nearing the end of its quest, now focused on acquiring the ailing Montreal Expos.
Collins, a former tech executive and political director of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, has put himself at the center of a loyal network of old friends, investment bankers, technology entrepreneurs, builders, restaurant owners, doctors and political hands in a sprawling ownership group that embodies the deal-making culture and go-go capitalism that spurred Northern Virginia's dramatic growth over the past 30 years.
Twenty-one individuals, groups and institutions have invested in Collins's latest effort. Many were tapped for their expertise or contacts, in addition to their wallets. Others worked or played with Collins.
Wachovia Bank is putting together the group's debt financing. W. Russell Ramsey, who, like Collins, attended George Washington University, is a partner in a major investment banking firm with experience in such deals. He and Bernard Swain, another friend who is co-founder of the Washington Speakers Bureau, were among the first to sign up in 1994. Former Redskins players Art Monk and Charles Mann joined last year. Ralph Dietze, who runs a construction company, came on board last month.
The group has been held together by tight friendships, and Collins's tight grip.
"He's our Bud Selig. We can all say something, but he calls the shots," said partner Joseph Della Ratta, a hotel, office and condominium developer, likening Collins to baseball's powerful commissioner. "All good leaders recognize you've got to put everything together."
Collins has carved an expansive role for the Virginia Baseball Club, which has served as talent pool, cash cow and strategy central for public and private efforts to secure a franchise. The group lobbied to increase the powers of the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority, the state agency responsible for financing and building a ballpark, and then underwrote the agency's activities with more than $6 million in contributions and loans.
The doggedness and agility that have come to characterize Collins's efforts have been on full display in his latest vision. When it became clear that the proposal to build a stadium in Arlington County with views of D.C. monuments, a setting favored by Major League Baseball executives, was dead, Collins initiated a brash new plan.
The idea was to plant a huge baseball development, later dubbed Diamond Lake, near Dulles International Airport in Loudoun County, where political leaders were itching for a marquee development that could serve as a gateway to the nation's fastest-growing county. The presence of baseball would spawn development nearby, creating an economic powerhouse and tourist draw that would finally crystallize Northern Virginia's identity, Collins argued.
"You want to create something that gets political leaders and the county excited," Collins said, adding that the largely undeveloped -- and unsightly -- slice of Loudoun needed a unique vision. "It's hard to get people excited about a bunch of trees and rocks."
The stadium authority sent major league officials an illustrated plan crafted by the group of developers Collins had recruited. The group, made up of some of the nation's largest home builders, became Diamond Lake Associates.
Virginia's baseball backers proposed a new ballpark-themed city-in-miniature, complete with thousands of residences in neighborhoods with names such as Left Field, hotels, a boardwalk along a planned lake, and a new downtown with tree-lined boulevards and 18-story office buildings around a stadium.