Nationals' Stadium Gets a New Lease on Life

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, February 8, 2006

The fate of baseball in the District went deep into extra innings last night. As midnight approached, Robert DuPuy, president of Major League Baseball, answered his phone in a slightly sleepy voice. "I'm watching," he said.

So was everybody else concerned with Washington's third-of-a-century quest to get baseball back in the nation's capital. And keep it.

As they watched and listened to the D.C. Council's debate over a lease for a new ballpark, they held their breath -- for hours.

At dinner time, the Council voted 8 to 5 to reject a lease for a park on the Anacostia waterfront. With that vote, all hell broke loose. DuPuy released blistering comments to the media, including the threat that baseball would immediately go to arbitration with the District to force the city to honor its original contract to build a park to house the Nationals.

"We have accommodated every single issue of every council member," fumed a disgusted DuPuy. "This is shortsightedness in an election year by some politicians. They have no vision for the city. They can't see the forest for the trees.

"We will file arbitration tomorrow to have the original contract enforced and we will consider all other options."

What might those options be? Might baseball move the Nationals, at some point in the future, to another city?

"Hell, we haven't thought about that yet," said DuPuy. "We've worked our butt off to make this work in Washington."

Soon after DuPuy's comments, politicians in Virginia began issuing sweet promises to try to lure Major League Baseball across the water to the Old Dominion. Local TV stations carried the hot news that even made its way to the ears of council member Marion Barry. "Let them get it," Barry said. "Let them give away the store."

Finally, Mayor Anthony A. Williams implored, begged and cajoled the council to reconsider a decision that might, in an eventual lawsuit, cost the city tens of millions of dollars in damages sought by baseball for violating a ratified contract. According to sources in baseball, the sport believes that a $50 million judgment against the District is a proper "ballpark" figure.

Suddenly, some semblance of sanity and sobriety seemed to return to the council. Debate was reopened and, after midnight, the council voted to approve -- something.

What the council passed, by a 9 to 4 vote, looked like a stadium lease and walked like a stadium lease. But was it?

"I think it's going to pass, but I don't know exactly what 'it' is," DuPuy said after listening to the welter of amendments and subtle changes in wording in the lease. "So I don't know if it would be acceptable. But we'll look at whatever they send us."

The good news is that, at the last moment, the District may have avoided an all-out go-to-the-mattresses war with baseball. The bad news is that baseball's patience with Washington has been stretched to its breaking point.

All day yesterday, a sense of outrage and betrayal swept through baseball, aimed directly at the D.C. Council. For more than a year, the sport has felt that D.C. politicians were reneging on a fairly negotiated contract, double-dealing with bait-and-switch tactics, extorting tens of millions of dollars in concessions and constantly following a path of dishonorable brinksmanship.

When that 8 to 5 vote arrived, baseball sent the clear message that "that was the last straw" and that no significant future appeasement to the District's constant demands for re-re-renegotiations would be tolerated.

Ever since the Nationals moved to Washington, many have joked that the interaction between major league officials and District politicians was a marriage made in hell. Nobody, it seems, knew how correct that wisecrack was. If the council's final lease does not pass baseball's scrutiny, the future of baseball in D.C. may be on the verge of going to the devil.

As recently as Monday morning, everybody in baseball, from Commissioner Bud Selig on down, thought that every problem involving baseball in Washington had finally been worked out in multi-day mediation sessions involving Williams, D.C. Council chairman Linda Cropp, an arbitrator and baseball officials. "We reached agreement on all 14 conditions. We met every single one of their issues," DuPuy said.

The sky was going to be blue for baseball here for decades to come. A new stadium lease would be approved. Cropp had promised. She "had the votes" she claimed. (Again.) Baseball would then quickly name a new owner for the team. Hello, era of bliss.

Then, everything blew sky high. After gaining concessions from baseball, Cropp once again couldn't back up her words. Once again, the D.C. Council simply refused to abide by an agreement that had been negotiated by those who purported to represent the city.

"People are beside themselves. They're trying to blackmail us," said one baseball source. "We're not going to take it."

"The bar keeps moving. We jump over the bar, then they move it higher," protested DuPuy. "We had a contract with them. But we made concession after concession even though we didn't have to. I'd put a value of 40 to 50 million dollars on everything we gave them."

By last weekend, supporters of the Anacostia waterfront park thought the deal finally was airtight. Baseball even lobbied President Bush, former owner of the Texas Rangers, to include $20 million in his budget for infrastructure costs near the new park.

Then, on Monday, "they changed again," said a dumbfounded DuPuy. "What more can they possibly want? They have a guaranteed maximum price contract. Clark Construction will build the stadium for $317 million, including the $20 million we gave them. It's guaranteed. The [architectural] drawings are 40 to 45 percent complete. Clark has agreed. It's not like they can come back, if things go badly, and say, 'No suites, no scoreboard.' What they're obligated to build is very, very detailed. Clark is on the hook. If it's $310 million, good for Clark. If $350 million, bad for Clark. It's Clark's problem, not the city's."

For many months the D.C. Council has been out of its depth, lost at sea and out of control. Now, in the next few days, we will find out whether the council has regained its senses, due in part to the battering they took in the hours after their initial 8 to 5 vote -- a decision that, in effect, would have doomed baseball's long-term future in the District. DuPuy was so furious that he began referring to the Nats as "the Oshkosh Nationals."

This column has pounded on baseball repeatedly to make financial concessions to Washington to give political cover to D.C.'s weak-kneed council members. Not because they have any legal obligation to do it, but because it's the smart strategy. For years, District politics has been defined and scarred by demagoguery that appeals to class and race warfare. Many have explained this ugly dynamic to Selig. Baseball could have gone further in its appeasements. But the game went far enough.

As the sport considers the District's latest version of a stadium lease, it should cut the city precious little slack. If the District does not want the Nats, somebody else will. Maybe even the citizens of a friendly, sensible state just a few miles away.

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