The grandstand along the first base line is taking shape, and if you stand on what will someday be second base, now surrounded by 10 cranes and 300 construction workers, it's easy to believe official assurances that the new home of the Washington Nationals will open on time in April 2008.

But trudge up from the ballpark's construction pit, beyond the future left field, and from this perspective the District's two-year battle over building a $611 million stadium in Southeast seems anything but resolved.

Here, at the corner of Half and N streets SE, is where the city intends to build some of the 1,225 parking spaces that its contract with Major League Baseball requires. On this spot, not a spade of dirt has been turned. Instead, the city is caught in a battle with developers, heading toward another political embarrassment like the late-night council debates that turned the acquisition of the Nats into such a low-rent soap opera.

The already stratospheric price tag threatens to balloon by an absurd $75 million, mainly for parking.

For months, the District, developers and the team's owners, the Lerner family, have debated where to put the parking -- underground, to create a pedestrian-friendly environment outside the stadium; in aboveground garages, because they are cheaper and faster to build; or on temporary surface lots, because the surrounding retail and residential development won't get going until well after the ballpark opens.

A decision has to come soon, probably before the D.C. Council meets next week. But the parties are barely talking, and just about everyone involved says no deal is possible without Tony Williams taking a commanding role.

"It should be the mayor taking the lead," says mayor-in-waiting Adrian Fenty. "There is a way out, but it's going to take some real leadership."

Instead of leadership, however, what we see is a mayor who has, in the phrase chosen independently by three council members, "checked out." Tony Williams is in South Africa, with a 31-member entourage, on another of his sojourns to exotic spots.

The last thing the city needs is a reprise of the baseball wars of the past. Yet some city officials remain loyal to developer Herb Miller and his plan to build aboveground garages next to the stadium. A tentative deal with Miller expired last month, with no progress toward building the structures.

There is an alternative: Jeff Neal, co-founder of Monument Realty, which owns a large parcel immediately north of the stadium, has offered to let fans use a 750-space underground garage that he would build in time for Opening Day 2008. Neal's offer would give the District time to settle on a long-term parking plan; in two years, Neal's garage would revert to its original purpose, serving condo dwellers, hotel guests and office tenants at the mixed-use project he plans.

"We could have shovels in the ground by January 1st" of 2007, says Neal. "We're offering a temporary solution because 40,000 seats in the stadium don't do anybody any good if people can't park."

Between Neal's 750 spaces, 300 spaces the city will provide on the opposite end of the stadium site and a few hundred surface parking spots available from other neighboring property owners, the District could live up to its deal with baseball.

But despite the ticking clock, city authorities seem more driven by their alliances with Miller or other developers than by the need to get the parking taken care of. "It's a free country, they can talk," D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission chief executive Allen Lew told me when I asked about the discussions between Monument and Lerner. "A temporary solution is something we've considered, but better is something permanent. This has to be resolved, like, yesterday."

Lew said a solution is possible only if the mayor gets involved. "Ask the mayor," he said.

Spokesman Vincent Morris, relaying the mayor's views from South Africa, said Williams doesn't want to see surface lots but "hopes to come up with a plan that will stack parking together in a way that allows us to develop the land around it. That solution is better for the neighborhood, more aesthetically pleasing and much better for taxpayers, since it provides a source of tax income to support government services."

Meanwhile, the clock ticks, and the talk about Williams in the halls of the D.C. government focuses instead on whether he will become the next president of American University. David Taylor, chief of staff to the school's president, notes that the trustees' search committee has held but one meeting and won't even take applications for the job until November. But such is the lameness of this mayoral duck that with his signature accomplishment at a pivot point, he is on the other side of the world.

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