MAJOR LEAGUE Baseball, whatever doubts it might have had, should be absolutely convinced by now that bringing the Montreal team to Washington was the right decision for the team's 29 owners as well as for the city and its baseball fans. Unfortunately, despite having received proof that Washington is indeed a great host for its Nationals and the national pastime, baseball insists on treating the city like a backwater town ripe for the taking. The nation's capital deserves better from the league's owners. The lease agreement for the new ballpark, now the subject of controversy, is a good place to start.
Negotiations between the city and Major League Baseball have dragged on for months, holding up the sale of the Nationals to one of eight bidding groups. It's not the city that has been dragging its feet. Major League Baseball, having already gotten the District to agree to pay for most of the $535 million stadium with public funds, and now on the verge of taking in $450 million through the sale of the team, is holding off on a lease agreement for the new ballpark because of the city's need for a guarantee of an average of $6 million in annual rent payments.
The city's position is not unreasonable. Neither is it negotiable. To publicly fund the stadium with construction bond financing, the city needs to give Wall Street bond raters assurances of predictable rent payments in order to win investment-grade ratings for the bonds. Major League Baseball, having landed what will be one of baseball's most successful franchises, with a new stadium to match, ought to show some flexibility on the guaranteed rent payments. An escrow payment or letter of credit for $24 million should eliminate the sticking point and enable the city to close the lease deal.
District leaders have operated in good faith, meeting all of baseball's requirements, even at some political risk. In return, they have received promises that the Nationals would be sold by (1) the Fourth of July; (2) the All-Star game; (3) the playoffs; and (4) the World Series. Now Commissioner Bud Selig says the owners won't have decided on a new owner even by this week's meetings in Milwaukee, although baseball officials said last month that they would. Without an owner in place, the Nationals' manager, Frank Robinson, said his team is prevented from signing top free agents in the offseason. This is no way for baseball to treat the nation's capital, where the sport has received a welcome second to none.