D.C. Council members lobbied a top Major League Baseball official yesterday to support building a baseball stadium near Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium as a cheaper alternative to the current site in Southeast along the Anacostia River.
Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, Major League Baseball's chief negotiator on a stadium lease with the District, responded by saying the league has not ruled out the RFK location, council members said.
"When I asked him about RFK, he said, 'Can you deliver it?' I said, 'Just as easily as we can deliver the Southeast site,' " said David A. Catania (I-At Large), who opposes public financing for the stadium.
Reinsdorf declined to comment about the specifics of the 11/2-hour meeting he had with the council, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and other city officials. But a spokesman for Williams stressed that Reinsdorf's comments should not be viewed as support for selecting another stadium site.
Reinsdorf was trying to tell the council that baseball has never ruled out the RFK site only because the league has solely focused on the Anacostia waterfront location, mayoral spokesman Vince Morris said. Several council members remain supportive of that plan, he added.
"We reiterated the point that the South Capitol site is the strongest economic development producer by far," Morris said. "Many of the council members understand that, too."
The discussion of where to build the $535 million stadium project was the main topic of the meeting, which marked the first time the council has met directly with a top baseball official during the tense lease negotiations.
Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) said she remains hopeful that a deal can be reached between the city and baseball in the next few days. However, she added that she has asked city officials to produce an analysis on the costs of building a stadium near RFK.
Some city leaders said the council was using the threat of RFK to try to exert leverage over MLB in the lease negotiations, in hopes of winning a bigger contribution from the league.
After the meeting, Reinsdorf and Jonathan Mariner, baseball's executive vice president for finance, left the John A. Wilson Building to resume negotiations with city officials on the critical lease agreement that will outline the terms by which the Nationals rent the new stadium.
No deal was reached as of last night, and negotiations are expected to continue today, city officials said.
The city needs the lease to sell construction bonds on Wall Street, and baseball Commissioner Bud Selig has said the league will not sell the Nationals until the document is finalized.
But the council, which will vote on the lease deal Dec. 20, assuming it is complete, has expressed concerns about the rising cost of the stadium project.
Reinsdorf, council members said, made no promises that Major League Baseball would agree to the city's two key demands: for a $24 million letter of credit to cover the Nationals' rent payment in case of a terrorist attack or players' strike and for an additional $20 million to help pay for stadium construction.
Without those concessions from the MLB, the council probably would reject the lease and push for a cheaper ballpark site near RFK, several members said.
"Reinsdorf has an understanding how the council feels, which seems to be tilting toward RFK," said Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5), who has supported the stadium at the South Capitol Street site.
Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who has opposed public financing for the stadium, said little progress was made during the meeting.
"Two things in my opinion can save this deal," Graham said. "One is a major financial concession from baseball to pay for cost overruns. The second is to relocate the deal to the RFK site."
Several council members said Reinsdorf negatively compared the Nationals' first season in the District with the first seasons of such expansion teams as the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies, which sold well over 3 million tickets apiece. The Nationals sold 2.7 million.
Both of those teams' home cities knew they would get teams years in advance, while the District and MLB announced an agreement to relocate the Montreal Expos to the District just six months before the first season.
The Nationals ranked 11th of league's 30 teams in total ticket sales. The team earned roughly $10 million in after-tax profit this season, after losing $80 million over their last three years as the Expos.
Bidders for the franchise have pledged to pay $450 million.
Some members interpreted Reinsdorf's remarks to mean that the MLB was unsatisfied with the Nationals' performance in D.C. However, Reinsdorf said in an interview that he was trying to emphasize that building a new stadium would boost ticket sales significantly higher than the 2.7 million the team sold this season.
"I never said it was not successful," Reinsdorf said. "What I said was the 2.7 million fans was not necessarily a big deal for a new team in a new city and was not necessarily indicative of what the team would draw in the future.
"I wasn't criticizing Washington as a location for a ballclub," Reinsdorf continued. "I said RFK wasn't a really good place to watch a game."
Last year, D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi said the RFK site could be $125 million cheaper than the Southeast site, in part because the city does not need to buy land or expand roads and Metro stations near RFK.
But D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission officials have said they now believe building near RFK would be just as expensive as the Southeast site, partly because environmental problems could considerably set back the start of construction.
Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) said Reinsdorf was trying to make the point that the RFK location is not as good for baseball and the city as the South Capitol Street site.
"He seemed very dubious about RFK as a site," Gray said.
Staff writers Barry Svrluga and Eric M. Weiss contributed to this report.