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Baseball, D.C. Are in a League Of Their Own

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Before Major League Baseball and the District say, "Let's step out in the alley and settle this," both sides need a reality check. The sport and the city, instead of heading for a fight that may send both to the financial hospital, should look at their weaknesses. Then maybe compromise won't seem so bad. This is the time to fold bluffs, not to keep raising.

These dreary days, as the D.C. Council refuses to finalize a stadium lease for a new ballpark in Southeast, MLB wants Washington to fear that it will lose the Nationals. It wants to scare us with memories of '60 and '71 when teams left town. But those were far different days. And Washington has become a vastly more desirable city for a franchise.

Baseball's threats, veiled and overt, are mostly smoke. The sport has no realistic options. It will never fold the franchise out of existence. The team would be worth $0.00 to the game's owners, rather than $450 million. Talk about a hollow threat. Also, the sport has no plausible place to move the Nationals for several years. The mayor of Las Vegas says his town will have no ballpark constructed until 2010, if it ever has one. As for Northern Virginia, nobody can afford to buy land in that region until you get to Dulles Airport, a 17-hour drive from Arlington on a weekday evening.

The sport likes to pretend, even to itself, that if it remains disgusted and angry with D.C. politicians, the Nationals will stay in Washington for only a few years. A way out of the District will materialize. But that's probably wrong, too. Washington so far exceeded expectations in its first season, and the value of the ex-Expos franchise skyrocketed so high, that baseball's owners will put pressure on the sport's leadership to remain, so they can eventually get that $450 million.

However, another hidden factor is also in play. Baseball's dirty secret is that it has at least 10 dead-weight franchises that don't draw flies, at least compared with Washington. This area is exactly the kind of financial life raft that MLB needs and will never abandon now that it's been discovered.

Last season, 11 big league teams drew an average of fewer than 25,115 fans a game. How many times did the Nats draw fewer than 25,115 last year? The answer: once, on April 18th (23,966). Washington averaged 33,728 a game. This area could probably average 25,000 fans in a worst-case scenario if the Nats played indefinitely in ancient RFK. That's not the result anybody wants. But it would still be a far better situation than at least 10 teams. That's what MLB doesn't want Washington to grasp.

You only know how strong Washingto n's position is when you look at the weak attendance and poor local TV markets in Minnesota, Detroit, Arizona, Toronto, Kansas City, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Colorado, Florida and Pittsburgh. Those are the 11 sub-25,115 teams. Six of them even have new ballparks that were built after Camden Yards. In other words, MLB now realizes that a Nats franchise in ancient RFK without an owner (and with Peter Angelos dreaming of evil deeds each night) can outdraw teams in state-of-the-art retro ballparks.

So sleep tight. The Nats aren't going anywhere.

If MLB's position is weak, then the District's stance is indefensible. If MLB is stuck with Washington, then the District and its council are twice as stuck with MLB -- and with building that new ballpark on the Anacostia waterfront as well. They just don't know it yet. But they will. Wait until the bills start arriving.

If no park is built, city officials have estimated that the town will lose $62.1 million in costs already incurred for the Southeast site. Dead money, burned up. Nice work. Instead of worry about possible cost overruns, just incinerate the money right up front and be done with it. And, of course, end up with no ballpark either. But that's just the beginning.

Major League Baseball President Bob DuPuy reaffirmed yesterday that MLB is preparing for arbitration as soon as the District is in default on its contractual commitments after Dec. 31. Baseball knows all about arbitration, knows it inside out. They learned the hard way. More than 20 years ago, MLB didn't fear arbitrators. Then the game was forced into a $280 million settlement with the players through a chain of events that began with an arbitrator's ruling that went against the sport.

Now, baseball officials feel they have an ironclad hand against the District in any arbitration case. Why? Because they assumed they would need to dot every "i" and cross every "t" in dealing with the D.C. Council. "We were warned by every other city that we could not trust the D.C. Council to honor any agreement that it made," said a baseball executive yesterday.

So, as the District will almost certainly discover, MLB has -- from the very first negotiations -- made sure that the city's neck was securely in the arbitration noose. If the council does not relent and honor its contractual obligations, the city will be looking down the barrel of huge damages, in the tens of millions of dollars. And that's exactly what should happen. In retrospect, what would any neutral arbitrator think? The District used the false promise of a $535 million ballpark to bait-and-switch MLB into moving a team to Washington. Maybe that's not what anybody intended. But that's how it worked out.

If the council does not approve a lease for the new park this month, then MLB says that "all prior concessions by MLB would be revisited." In other words, the $20 million that MLB voluntarily threw into the pot recently, along with several other concessions on the split of development rights, will disappear quickly.

The District is focused on how much money it might lose in cost overruns on a new stadium. If the mayor and the council think that scenario is bad, they ought to get out their pencils and figure out how much money they can lose if they don't build the ballpark. Those who are so eager to go back on a deal that their city signed last year -- after endless and meticulous negotiations -- better get a handle on the potential legal damages they may face. Not to mention the anger of developers who have already poured millions into projects near the proposed ballpark because they felt they could take the city at its word.

Both MLB and the District are in shock and denial at the disintegration of the whole situation in the last few days. Silly MLB, it actually believed that Mayor Anthony Williams or council Chairman Linda Cropp could deliver the votes they claimed to have lined up. Baseball can't quite face how badly it needs Washington -- especially that $450 million it has already (psychologically) spent. As for District politicians, they have a spectacular case of convenient amnesia. They've forgotten all the reasons why they gave MLB the sweet deal that it got last year.

But an arbitrator probably won't forget. Baseball and the District negotiated the issue of cost overruns long ago. The District got 'em. Ooops.

Don't let any of this spoil your holiday cheer. Just sit back and watch the fun.

What we'll be watching will be baseball and political theater of the absurd. Don't view the shenanigans as drama but rather as farce. That way, you'll enjoy each new twist more, be aggravated less and, also, be much closer to the truth.

The dishonorable District government and the go-for-the-last-buck bosses of Major League Baseball -- what a perfect match. Now, they're stuck with each other, good and proper. Some would call it fate. Others among us simply prefer to think of it as poetic justice.

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