Four D.C. Council members, including Marion Barry, announced yesterday that they are supporting local entrepreneur Jonathan Ledecky's bid to buy the Washington Nationals, saying he would provide new resources for the city.
At a news conference on a dilapidated baseball field at the Barry Farm recreation center in Southeast, the council members pledged their support, surrounded by two dozen youth players in baseball uniforms. Ledecky then brandished a check for $100,000, which he said will be the first donation to a new trust fund aimed at renovating fields and recreation centers in the District.
"Whether we're the winning group or not, we want every kid who wants to play ball in the city to have the right equipment, uniforms, coaches and fields," Ledecky said. "That's the commitment we make to the city."
Barry (D-Ward 8) was joined by fellow council members Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) and Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7). The group staked its distance from Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), who has declared his support for a competing group headed by Frederic V. Malek and Jeffrey Zients.
Yesterday's event appeared partially aimed at convincing baseball officials that Ledecky can bridge a sharp divide on the council over the public financing of a new baseball stadium. Major League Baseball officials have privately expressed concern that the project could be delayed by some council members' opposition to public funding, even though a financing package was approved late last year.
Orange supports the package, but Barry, Brown and Gray oppose public funding for the stadium. The three took office Jan. 1, a few days after the council voted 7 to 6 to approve the plan. They said yesterday that they remain opposed to public funding but added that Ledecky would give more resources to the community.
Some council members have called on whoever owns the team to contribute a substantial sum to the stadium project, which is expected to cost $535 million. But baseball officials, who hope to fetch more than $400 million for the Nationals, want the stadium funded by other means so that prospective bidders pay more for the team.
Asked whether he would help pay for a new stadium, Ledecky treaded cautiously.
"I'm very sympathetic to the city's needs," he said. "It's a very complicated process. Baseball negotiated the transaction [for the stadium], and I'm in no position to change that, because we've not been selected."
Ledecky persuaded the council members to support him during private meetings arranged by Frank Smith Jr., a former council member whom Ledecky contacted several months ago.
The council members said Ledecky, who lives in Georgetown, has deeper local roots than the seven other groups bidding for the team. A donation from Ledecky several years ago helped renovate the Barry Farm recreation center, they said.
"How many other owners come to D.C., much less come to Barry Farm east of the [Anacostia] river?" Brown said. "Any ownership of this team should be local and committed to the community."
Major League Baseball's 29 owners collectively own the Nationals and want to sell the team by the end of the season. Ledecky's bid for the team has drawn some criticism from Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), who frowned on Ledecky's alliance with billionaire George Soros, an ardent critic of President Bush.
"At the end of the day, the baseball bidding will come down to two things," Ledecky said. "One is price, and the second is a commitment to the community."