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.
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.
"The streets are of similar size, dimension and character to streets in large American cities, like New York and Washington, D.C.," according to the proposal. Towering jets of water, modeled on the Fountains of Bellagio in Las Vegas, would pulsate in choreographed bursts, adding "an interesting and playful conversation piece to the lake."
The neighborhood fan base and a commercial development surrounding the new ballpark would strengthen the team and make it a bigger revenue generator for Major League Baseball, Collins said. "You put a $3 billion or $4 billion project around it, it generates people. It generates business," Collins said.
Partner and lobbyist Michael Scanlon, who shares Collins's history of working for Republican officials in Washington, sees comparisons with Walt Disney, who tapped the broader economic magic of Disney World by developing multiple ventures in the Orlando area.
"He's making money on the hotels and the restaurants. He's got more money to spend on Disney World because of it," Scanlon said.
"That's the exact model, in a sense, that we're talking about here. The owners of the team will benefit. We're the ones who have to write the checks to the ballplayers," Scanlon said, adding that baseball will be "the sun that gets the solar system spinning."
Collins, for example, is planning to build a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course two miles from the ballpark. The corporate-oriented course, called Bear National, would draw customers from -- and direct them to -- the stadium's line of luxury suites, Collins said. Such synergies would reach far beyond the fairway, Collins said.
It took years of failure to perfect this latest strategy. And it began, Collins remembers, over beer.
Collins asked a group of buddies and business associates what they thought of trying to fill the void left when the Washington Senators abandoned the nation's capital for the second time in 1971 and moved to Texas. It was 1992.
"Everyone jumped on it. That's when we decided," Collins said. "So we bought two clubs."
They ran the Greensboro Bats, a minor league affiliate of the New York Yankees, and the Michigan Battle Cats, affiliate of the Houston Astros, both for on-the-job management training and to build relationships with the major league owners who might eventually sell their teams, or sit in judgment of another move.
Collins, a native Washingtonian who has lived in each of the city's quadrants, said his nascent group considered trying to bring a team to the District in the early 1990s but was soon dissuaded by the city's financial woes and regional demographic trends.
Then, in 1994, things got hot.
Major League Baseball was expanding by two teams, and Collins first formed an investment group to raise the needed cash.
Collins and others traveled to an airport hotel in Chicago to meet the owners on baseball's expansion committee.
Also making Northern Virginia's case, in a separate meeting, were Thomas M. Davis III, the Republican congressman who was then chairman of Fairfax County's Board of Supervisors, and George Barton, then Loudoun's board chairman.
The owners knew little about this entity west of the nation's capital that the Virginians kept harping on.
"They said, 'Northern Virginia. What's that?' " Barton recalled. "They like cities, clearly defined geographic areas."
After Barton and Davis finished touting the Dulles area's soaring growth and household incomes, there was silence, Barton recalls.
"George Steinbrenner decided to fill the void," Barton said. The Yankees owner "looked Tom and me in the eye and said, 'Why don't you just build a stadium and give it to us? That's what everybody else does.' "
Barton, stunned, told the group that as good Republicans they couldn't afford that. The meeting was soon over, as was Northern Virginia's bid. Tampa and Phoenix ended up with the teams.
Collins assigned Scanlon to lobby for legislation giving the authority the muscle needed to finance and build a ballpark on terms acceptable to Major League Baseball. In 1996, Collins began funding the authority's operations -- in exchange for an agreement that his Virginia Baseball Club would have the exclusive right to negotiate a lease to use the stadium.
Barriers remained, and that year Collins lost another bid. Collins thought he had a deal to bring the Houston Astros to Virginia. But baseball officials opposed the plan, and voters in Houston narrowly passed a measure to build a new stadium, killing the Virginia move.
Over the next couple of years, Collins sought to buy the Expos from their owners at the time, but that, too, failed, beginning a prolonged dry spell.
Northern Virginia's latest bid has had difficulties as well, including the stinging rejection in Arlington. League executives also decided that they would first choose where to move the Expos, and then who would own the team. The change nixed Collins's exclusive position with the authority, though the organizations remain closely tied.
The fervent opposition of Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos to a team in the Washington region also remains a "huge" impediment, Collins acknowledged.
The parade of setbacks has left some participants, and even competitors, awed at Collins's willingness to keep at it.
"I think it's pure love," said Keith Frederick, who volunteers as stadium authority chairman. "I've heard Bill Collins say many times that if this was done on a pure investment basis, there isn't anyone that would touch it."
Collins quips that instead of talking so much about how committed he is, people should just have him committed. Asked if he's been following any model, Collins responded with characteristic self-deprecation: For "being this stupid? No, not that I'm aware of."
Still, he said, he won't stop.
"I never get discouraged. . . . Discouraged is just not part of my personality," Collins said. "An entire generation of kids and fans hasn't had a home team to root for. It's really that simple and plain."
Lawyer Paul Shiffman, an investor since the mid-1990s who has coached Little League in McLean for 37 years, said he and Collins share the same simple, and perhaps sentimental-sounding, motivations.
"If you give back to the community, you feel something good about life. . . . It really has been a civic love," Shiffman said. "Some people in the public may not believe that but it's really true. You don't invest in something like this. You go out and put your money in something else."
Major league executives have spent much time seeking details on how Virginia's massive undertaking would be coordinated. The stadium authority has led discussions with league representatives. If baseball chooses Northern Virginia, the stadium authority would be responsible for building the $360 million ballpark.
But the authority's complex plan relies on private developers to build tens of millions of dollars worth of road projects and other improvements needed for the stadium.
"It's no good if you build a stadium and the roads don't take you there," said Laurence E. Bensignor, chairman of Diamond Lake Associates. Similarly, for a community he plans to market based on its baseball aura, "It would be nice to have Major League Baseball there, instead of cranes."
Such logistical hurdles have played into discussions with the league, but are surmountable, he said.
"We're working with the stadium authority on documentation at the same time they're working on their deal with Major League Baseball. It gets a little chicken-and-egg. You kind of work them at the same time," Bensignor said.
The stadium would be underwritten with a tangled financing plan. One-third would be paid by the team's owners -- whether Collins's group or another bidder. The other two-thirds would be financed with government bonds, to be repaid by taxing concessions, player salaries and other stadium-related spending.
The development group, which would build and own the parking lots and oversee stadium-related retail, would hand over $7.5 million to the authority annually. Team owners would be given 40 percent of whatever stadium authority revenue is left each year, after debt service and other obligations are paid, to fund ballpark operations.
Collins would not say whether any of his partners have reached ownership or other agreements with Diamond Lake's developers.
But he said some of his partners are considering moving their companies to new buildings at Diamond Lake if they win a team. Some partners said they hope to get a piece of the Diamond Lake development, but nothing had been promised them.
Collins said his focus remains on building a great team.
"I have visions of creating the most successful baseball franchise we could possibly do, in one of the best markets in the world. . . . We think the development at Dulles just enriches that, the ability to create something special," Collins said.
But the deadline appears near, Collins said. The state financing plan expires at year's end, and the chances of extending it are slim, he said.
"I think there would be a feeling, 'If baseball doesn't do it this time, it'll never happen. So why?' Remember, Washington has had a 30-year history of this. Virginia, thank God, has only had a 12-year history," Collins said.
"If it doesn't happen, how long do you go on? Ad infinitum? There's nothing more we can do in this process," he added. "We're giving baseball everything they want."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.