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Nats Risk Priceless Goodwill For $100,000 a Day in Damages

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, May 22, 2008

Night after night, tens of thousands of fans crowd into Nationals Park to watch baseball. The views are spectacular, the scoreboard is dazzling, the team can't hit -- ah, well, you can't have everything. But at least the stadium, against many expectations, got built on time and on budget.

Or did it?

A snippy legal battle between the Washington Nationals and the District government has been raging behind the scenes since February. Even now, a quarter of the way into the first season at Nats Park, the team's owners are demanding that the city cough up $100,000 a day in damages because, according to the Nationals, the stadium was not completed in time for Opening Night in March.

(Funny, I somehow recall spending $5 on a hot chocolate at the ballpark that night -- and watching a breathtaking walk-off Ryan Zimmerman home run sail out of the stadium.)

According to letters I obtained detailing the dispute, attorneys for the Nationals began peppering the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission early this year with warnings that the ballpark would not be done on time, putting the city on notice that the team wanted the big-money damages that the construction contract allowed for if the stadium came in late.

In public, everything seemed hunky-dory. "Everybody has done a wonderful job on this ballpark," Nationals owner Ted Lerner told The Washington Post on Opening Night. "I think expectations have actually been surpassed."

Inside the team's offices, the tone was very different. Two weeks before the March 30 opening, exasperated attorneys for the city accused the team of "finger-pointing and windfall-seeking." Nationals attorney Irwin Raij responded that "our purpose was not to provoke a dispute," but he told the stadium's architects that "the team is concerned that in the frenzy to complete the stadium, industry standards may be disregarded and errors will be made exposing the team and its patrons to unnecessary risk."

Raij would not comment, and Nationals President Stan Kasten was uncharacteristically reticent when I reached him: "I'm not going to have anything to say to you about that."

But nearly three weeks after the stadium played host to its first game, the Nationals were still demanding $100,000 a day because, among other items, the team offices at the new ballpark were not yet completely ready.

The city conceded that the offices weren't done as soon as the ballpark itself, but sports commission chief executive Gregory O'Dell reminded the Nationals that the offices make up less than 3 percent of the stadium project. He called that delay a "minor inconvenience" and noted that the District allowed the team to stay at its old RFK Stadium offices rent-free.

"The Nationals had an incredibly successful season opener in a stadium that opened on time," says Matthew Cutts, chairman of the sports commission. "We still think there's hope for an amicable resolution, but this isn't the way we would like to see the project come to completion."

Some city officials are so angry at the Lerners that they don't want to talk to the family anymore. "It just turns my stomach that they would take all the goodwill we had and risk it on petty little technicalities," says one D.C. official, who declined to be named, saying he doesn't want to become the focus of the owners' wrath.

Others are not so quick to get excited about this apparent souring of the relationship. "Clearly, the stadium was done in time," says D.C. council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), a longtime supporter of the ballpark project. "We played baseball there on Opening Night. But the Lerners, without passing judgment on this, are in the construction business, and their reputation is to be very meticulous, so it would not surprise me that they would seek to stick to the letter of the contract."

The Lerners take great pride in the stadium, and especially in the $50 million worth of snazzy extras they paid for, such as the gorgeous scoreboard, bathrooms in the luxury suites and a better class of restaurant out beyond centerfield. Add that to the $450 million purchase price for the franchise, and the family is entitled to ask that it gets what was agreed to.

But the District and the fans paying the taxes that pay off the stadium bonds are deep into this project too, to the tune of $611 million in construction costs and millions more in infrastructure around the ballpark.

Both sides feel tapped out, but the Nationals have a long way to go before baseball is once again firmly rooted in Washington. It wouldn't be fair to ask the owner to open the spigots and spend with all the abandon of, say, the D.C. government, but the Nats do need to send the message that they are determined to make this team both a cherished public institution and a financial success. Diving into petty disputes only muddies that message.

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