In the final hours before he took the historic call from Major League Baseball, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams had time to kill. He stood on the curb outside city hall, fiddling with his pager. A federal worker strolled by, recognized Williams and broke into a grin. "Play ball!" the man offered. But the mayor, who was sick and sleepy and tense, never looked up.
Later, after baseball Commissioner Bud Selig gave the official word that the Montreal Expos would move to the nation's capital, Williams did his best to communicate excitement. He donned a red baseball cap. He staged a celebratory news conference packed with VIPs. He hoisted a replica of home plate over his head.
But baseball never really became a citywide spectacle. Talk of a pep rally at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium with souvenir T-shirts and hot dogs for the kids went nowhere. Within days, carping about Williams's promise to raise taxes to build a ballpark drowned out the happy news that baseball is back, after 33 years. And what might have been the brightest moment of Williams's tenure as mayor dissolved into another opportunity for critics to take their shots.
Some political observers even opined that the return of baseball would prove to be disastrous for Williams (D) should he seek a third term in 2006. They said it provides a potent symbol for those who argue that the mayor courts the wealthy while neglecting the poor.
"I think people like the idea of having baseball. But they compare it to the absence of quality in the schools, health care, the dereliction of basic public services. And they ask themselves: What's the priority in this city?" said lawyer Bill Lightfoot, a former at-large D.C. Council member who remains an important figure in the city's political establishment. "This is not viewed as a socially redeeming enterprise. It's a play toy for rich people."
Williams's supporters say the mayor demonstrated tenacity and vision in his quest for baseball. They say they are grateful that he had the courage to do what had to be done to get Washington a team. But last week, as Williams announced plans for an 11-day trip to China at the height of the stadium debate, even some of his friends were shaking their heads.
"This should be a politician's dream. He should be jumping up and down, saying, 'Baseball is great for the city, and people who are against it are crazy,' " said Robert A. Peck, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. "That's the thing about the mayor and baseball. It should be a home run. But it will be interesting to see if it turns into a play at the plate."
In an interview last week in his library on the sixth floor of the Wilson Building, Williams ranked the return of baseball among his top 10 achievements as mayor.
Since he took office in 1999, Williams said, he has steered the District back from the brink of bankruptcy and improved city services. The homicide rate has plummeted. And he has created a climate in which developers have been enticed to rebuild downtown and begin branching out to the neighborhoods, bringing stores, restaurants and jobs to some communities for the first time in decades.
The return of baseball, Williams said, is an affirmation of the city's renaissance, "a visible manifestation that the city has now resumed its respect and standing and recognition in the rest of the world."
"How can you be a major league city when you don't have a Major League Baseball team?" Williams said. "It's a symbol -- a signal that we're back as a city." And it's a potential source of pleasure, he said, for "people from every walk of life: young and old, rich and poor, black and white."
All the same, Williams said he recognizes that baseball also has the potential to become a political liability.
"Is there a perception that the mayor only cares about, you know, the rich people in this city? Yes. There is a perception. Left unattended, could [baseball] feed into the perception? Yes," Williams said. "But am I going to allow that lack of public information to persist? No. Am I going to allow that perception to kind of fester on itself? No."
In the coming weeks, Williams plans a public relations offensive to explain his stadium-financing plan to D.C. voters and to council members, who must approve it by Dec. 31 to seal the deal to bring the Expos to Washington for the 2005 season.
The mayor has set up a baseball "war room" and hired an outside consultant to help sharpen his message. Each evening, city officials fan out to community meetings. Williams has personally briefed the council and about a dozen advisory neighborhood commissioners from the Ward 6 community that would be home to the new stadium. A spokeswoman said the mayor hopes to make more public appearances before he leaves for China on Thursday.
In those sessions and in meetings with reporters, Williams argues that his stadium plan would cost District residents virtually nothing, while showering the city with benefits, both economic and intangible. The 41,000-seat stadium would be built near the Anacostia waterfront just east of South Capitol Street, bringing jobs and development to a blighted part of town. It would draw sports fans from Maryland and Virginia, redirecting their recreation dollars to hotels, bars and restaurants in the District.
Williams said the bill for the stadium would be paid not by average taxpayers but by people who get direct benefits from the team. The city would issue as much as $500 million in revenue bonds and repay the debt with cash from three sources: the team owners, who would give the city a lease payment of about $5.5 million a year; baseball fans, who would contribute sales taxes on tickets, hot dogs and other stadium-related items; and the city's 2,000 largest businesses, which would pay a temporary tax on gross receipts ranging from $3,000 to $28,200 annually.
Skeptics, including several council members, have questioned Williams's assurances that those revenue streams would cover the $440 million estimated cost of the ballpark and related expenses, saying the administration has failed to account for roads and infrastructure. They point out that the city would be responsible for any cost overruns. And they are vowing to fight the imposition of a gross receipts tax on businesses, saying it makes no sense to raise taxes for a stadium when the city could use the money for other pressing needs.
Former mayor Marion Barry, who last month won the Democratic nomination to represent Ward 8 on the council, is among those working to block the deal.
"I'm unalterably opposed to tax money being spent to build this baseball stadium," Barry said. "With these raggedy schools we have around here? Put a gross receipt [tax] on [for] them. Fix those up."
In response, Williams has taken to calling the business tax a "ballpark fee," noting that a similar levy was imposed to build the city's new convention center. Administration officials point out that the stadium cost estimates include a substantial cushion to cover cost overruns and other unforeseen expenses, and that the three sources of revenue are expected to generate far more cash annually than will be needed to repay the bond debt.
The mayor and council leaders also are trying to rework the stadium legislation so that the economic benefits of baseball can be measured, captured and funneled toward community deficiencies, including crumbling schools and outdated recreation centers.
But Williams is finding it more difficult to address a more fundamental sense of outrage, rooted in the notion that baseball got his attention like nothing else and that he gave away the store.
"He's persuading baseball teams to move here, but he's not up at the council persuading people we need a new library. . . . They don't have a war room to fix our schools," said John Capozzi, a Democratic activist who is helping to organize opposition to the stadium plan. "I have two kids in public school. If the mayor can do this -- and I sort of agree with you that it was a big achievement to get a team -- well, fix my problem."
Williams said his inability to improve the city's failing school system is "a huge frustration." But the problem with the schools is not a lack of cash, he said. Since he took office, he said, the city has dramatically increased spending on education. He said he also has pumped an extra $1 billion into housing, $250 million into parks, $40 million to $50 million into libraries -- all the things people accuse him of neglecting.
Williams said historians will give him "a good amount of the credit" for Washington's renaissance. A baseball team will enhance the city's stature, he said, greasing the cogs of an economic engine that must be kept humming if the city ever hopes to lift up the poor.
Williams has not decided whether to seek reelection, saying he plans to make a decision by the end of the year.
"I would do this baseball thing even if I knew I would not be reelected," he said, "because I think it's right for the long-term interest of the city."