On a steamy morning in August, key figures in the campaign to bring baseball to Northern Virginia gathered in a Georgetown law office for a meeting with Major League Baseball. They had some shocking news.
The Virginia baseball bid, years in the making, had been gaining momentum because of the league's long reluctance to put a team in the District. But now the group had to report that Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) had joined legislative leaders in rejecting a plan to use state-supported bonds to build a stadium near Dulles International Airport.
For a long, painful moment, baseball's chief negotiator, Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, said nothing. Then his team ordered the Virginians out of the room.
"We didn't know what was going to happen to us," recalled Keith Frederick, chairman of the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority. Executive Director Gabe Paul Jr. said he remembers thinking they had just slit their own throats.
Reinsdorf was weighing two bids for the ailing Montreal Expos. Virginia's bid was falling apart. The other, from the District, had solid public financing and unwavering political support. But baseball officials weren't ready to give in to the District yet. When the meeting resumed, Reinsdorf gave Virginia two weeks to come up with a new financing plan.
In the final weeks of the process, the Washington region was competing against itself -- city vs. suburb -- each side scrabbling to throw more cash and sweet enticements on the baseball bargaining table. In late September, the District won its tortuous, 33-year quest for a new ballclub by agreeing to a financing plan for the stadium, the costs of which have soared to $581 million.
Today, the former Expos will play here for the first time as the Washington Nationals. But even as they take the field for an exhibition game against the New York Mets, the franchise is handicapped by the strange, chaotic circumstances of its birth and by baseball's grudging embrace of its newest market.
With the Nationals' regular season scheduled to open tomorrow in Philadelphia, the team has no private owner and virtually no promotional apparatus. The Nationals have a bare-bones operation and a league-imposed limit on how much they can spend. Until last week, the team did not even know which stations would broadcast its games.
Despite the difficulties, the Washington area has cautiously embraced its new team. The April 14 home opener is sold out. Fans have purchased nearly 22,000 season tickets, placing the team among the most successful in baseball. But after a relocation process that was steeped in distrust, many fear that baseball might yet squander the city's tender enthusiasm.
"I'm very excited that this is happening. It was a long struggle to get here," D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said. "They better not screw things up."
D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) believes that the deck always was stacked against Washington. Since 1971, the Senators' last season in Washington before the team pulled up stakes and moved to Texas, two serious deals -- for the San Diego Padres in 1974 and the Houston Astros in 1995 -- had fallen through. In between, baseball bypassed Washington three times for expansion teams. Williams said Major League Baseball's opaque and imperious inner circle reminded him of the Kremlin. There was no clear path, he said, and the outcome was "rigged."
Even now, baseball Commissioner Bud Selig will not answer key questions about the deal. In an interview Friday, he acknowledged that he would have loved to stay out of Washington, primarily because the Orioles are less than 40 miles up the road. "The Orioles was a huge factor," Selig said. "I am very protective. I've seen it not work, and then you have a real problem."
In the end, Selig said, the District overcame his concerns with sheer guts and desire. "Washington was so determined and made such a presentation," he said. "They really wanted a team."
Selig said he was not worried that Washington had lost two teams. But in baseball circles, Washington had an outdated reputation as a crime-ridden city, scarred by riots and bedeviled by corrupt politicians. The District's image was so bad that before Expos President Tony Tavares made a surreptitious trip to town in August to inspect Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium -- where the team would play until a new stadium is built -- he warned the team's chief operating officer, Claude Delorme, that the place was "not pretty" and in a "tough, tough" part of town.
But driving in the area, Tavares was amazed to see renovated coffee shops and quaint rowhouses. "This is a lot different than I remember it," he recalled thinking.
The city's leadership had changed, as well. The mayor was a whip-smart technocrat who had brought the District back from the brink of bankruptcy. He was also an avid sports fan who viewed baseball as a potent economic and cultural tool.
"The great thing about baseball is . . . you're building something. You're planning for the future. You're doing something you think can unite the community," Williams said. Plus, winning a team would affirm vividly the urban revival that Williams had helped engineer.
'Two Different Doors'
The District made its first formal pitch for the Expos in March 2003, offering to pay most of the cost of a ballpark projected to cost $463 million. Officials strongly emphasized the region's growth and prosperity. Portland, Ore., and Northern Virginia were also in the hunt.
The season came and went without a decision. Then, in January 2004, Selig said he was ready to act. Three more areas expressed interest: Monterrey, Mexico; Norfolk; and Las Vegas. Bidders were told to prepare their best offers.
Williams began hearing that Selig was leaning toward Northern Virginia, where a team might tap the lucrative Washington market without drawing too many fans from Baltimore. But financier Frederic V. Malek, the leader of a group of investors working to bring baseball to Washington, had an idea.
On March 16, Malek, former Fannie Mae chief executive Franklin D. Raines and other partners in the Washington Baseball Club met with Williams; Eric W. Price, then-deputy mayor for planning and economic development; and special assistant Stephen Green.
"Baseball is very serious about a fully financed stadium," Malek told Williams.
"And though you think D.C.'s superior demographics will win the day against the other cities, with the Angelos factor it isn't enough," said Malek, referring to Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos. "We must build a baseball park."
Williams embraced the idea immediately -- mindful, the mayor said, of the possible political consequences.
"There were two different doors," Williams said. "I could pick Door No. 1, bring baseball here and everybody would beat the hell out of me because I brought baseball here, but I paid too much. Or, two, because of some risk aversion, I could lose a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
The mayor chose Door No. 1, and held meetings with Malek and his partners to hone the city's presentation. Fifty slides were cut to 10. Vivid graphics were added. Williams rehearsed a short, simple pitch, which he delivered to Major League Baseball on May 6.
Reinsdorf was impressed. Afterward, baseball Executive Vice President John McHale Jr. told reporters that baseball was "serious" about Washington. Still, Williams couldn't shake the feeling that the District was "a standby bid."
"I really thought they were going to Virginia," he said.
In fact, Major League Baseball had been meeting with the Northern Virginia group for weeks. In early March, William L. Collins III, a former technology executive and the lead investor in the Virginia Baseball Club, squired McHale and Major League Baseball counsel Thomas Ostertag on a helicopter tour of the Dulles tech corridor and two potential stadium sites, which the group focused on after efforts to find something closer to the city failed.
In May, the group formally proposed building a stadium in Loudoun, set in a 450-acre development to be called Diamond Lake. Taxes generated by activity at the stadium and the surrounding development would support bonds to build the ballpark. And stadium authority officials assured baseball that the bonds would be backed by the state.
In June, baseball executives returned for a Capitol Hill meeting hosted by Sen. George Allen (R-Va.). Afterward, Collins told people that baseball sources were saying of the Virginia bid that the Expos were "yours to lose."
Warner, however, had doubts about Diamond Lake. Legislative leaders were criticizing the idea of backing the bonds. As the governor learned more about the project, he concluded that it was too risky, could damage the state's bond rating and never would win legislative approval.
During an Aug. 23 fundraiser at Warner's Alexandria home, Collins angrily confronted the governor. Warner stood his ground, urging Collins to get the county or the developers to back the bonds.
Two days later, Frederick carried the news to Major League Baseball. But Reinsdorf remained "very interested in Virginia," said Jerry McAndrews, a member of Virginia's negotiating team. For the next two hours, baseball executives and Virginia boosters looked for ways to salvage the deal. One option: Major League Baseball said Virginia should consider permitting baseball or the Expos' new owners to build the stadium using the tax revenue, a strategy that would let baseball pocket millions in leftover taxes once the building was paid off.
Reinsdorf sent Frederick off to nail down the details. "Whether they wanted to keep us alive because they had chosen us, or they wanted to keep us alive to hold D.C.'s feet to the fire, I didn't know," Frederick said.
But a lack of state support was not Diamond Lake's only problem. The developers did not control key pieces of land -- including the quarry that was supposed to become scenic Diamond Lake. By the time Virginia obtained an attorney's general opinion to sanction the new financing plan, Major League Baseball no longer was interested.
Unaware that the Virginia deal had collapsed, negotiators for the District pressed ahead, finishing talks with Reinsdorf at 1 a.m. Sept. 23. At the end of a seven-hour conference call, Reinsdorf said he would recommend the District to baseball's executive council in Milwaukee later that day.
Mark H. Tuohey, chairman of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, and commission member Bill Hall retired to a cigar bar on F Street NW and hoisted a few beers in exhausted celebration.
"That's when we felt we'd done it," said Hall, a lawyer at Winston & Strawn. "That's when we believed it was over."
The next morning, baseball's administrative elite gathered in a conference room off Selig's 30th-floor office in Milwaukee. Angelos sat calmly awaiting the bad news.
Selig arrived and motioned for Angelos to follow. In his private office, he told Angelos he would never let the Orioles get hurt, and he set a floor price should Angelos choose to sell. "In my 13 years as a commissioner, it was probably as tough an issue as any I've been involved in," Selig said later.
Angelos was not happy. He and Selig returned to the conference room. The tension was thick. Reinsdorf, whom Angelos blamed for pushing the Expos toward Washington, held his tongue as McHale and Robert A. DuPuy, president of Major League Baseball, methodically laid out the city's offer.
When they finished, mouths were agape. The District would pay for the whole stadium, right down to the kitchen equipment for the concessionaire.
"Jerry had taken the last crumb off the table," said one attendee of Reinsdorf. "People couldn't believe it."
Unmoved, Angelos implored his fellow owners to reject it.
"I am your partner," he said. "Partners don't do this to each other."
The meeting adjourned without a vote. That night, DuPuy boarded a plane for New York, then caught a train to Baltimore. Over the next few hours, he and Angelos reached a tentative agreement that would guarantee Angelos annual revenues of at least $130 million, as well as a sale price of $365 million if he decided to sell the Orioles.
On Sept. 28, Virginia made a last-ditch appeal to baseball, offering a privately funded stadium package worth $360 million, according to sources familiar with the offer. It was too late. Selig signed an agreement to move the Expos to Washington the next day. McHale was supposed to travel to the District, but he canceled at the last minute, leaving Williams to make the announcement alone.
Amid the hoopla, nobody thought to tell the Expos. A frustrated Tavares called DuPuy and demanded to know what was going on. Tavares broke the news to his shellshocked staff, then sent them out for the teams' final game that night in Montreal.
Political and Geographic Hurdles
The next morning, Tavares and Delorme met DuPuy in a Montreal hotel room. How do you move a franchise? It hadn't been done in baseball since -- well, since the Senators left Washington. And then, Major League Baseball was not involved because the team was privately owned.
They hashed out a budget and designated Delorme, a Canadian, to close up shop in Montreal. After a few days off, Tavares would head for the District.
One huge complication was moving from Montreal instead of, say, Cleveland. The United States does not offer visas to workers who lack specialized skills. The Canadians in the team's accounting, marketing and public relations departments could not come to Washington. Tavares would have to build the front office from scratch.
Williams, meanwhile, was struggling to push the stadium package through a suddenly reluctant D.C. Council. Angered by rising cost estimates, stadium opponents accused the mayor of giving away the store.
Through much of December, Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) stalled the legislation and searched for ways to reduce the cost. Cropp and Williams finally struck a compromise, and the mayor signed the package Dec. 29.
Evans said the situation was "never as bad as it seemed." Cropp "didn't want to lose baseball," he said, and she willingly negotiated with DuPuy to resolve the crisis.
During the debate, Major League Baseball nearly compounded the mayor's troubles by naming the team the Senators. Polls showed that it was a far more popular name than the Nationals, which was a distant second. In an informal survey of "taxicab drivers and indigent people," Tavares said he didn't find "a single person who said anything but 'Senators.' "
But Williams and his aides adamantly opposed the name for political reasons: It would have given stadium opponents even more ammunition, they said. The District has no vote in Congress, much less a senator to call its own. Green, the city official, bombarded baseball executives with e-mails, explaining the touchy politics of D.C. voting rights. In a meeting with McHale, the mayor put his foot down: "The Senators" would never fly.
In the end, Williams won. The team was named the Nationals on Nov. 22.
"In our view, he put his political livelihood on the line to get baseball here," Tavares said of the mayor. "So I think there is a certain amount of deference that is due him."
Tavares had his own problems. From the moment he touched down in Washington on Oct. 12, "a million things [were] zooming past me," he said.
Uniforms? Todd Radom, a graphic designer and die-hard Boston Red Sox fan, designed them on a laptop computer in a Massachusetts hotel room between games of the World Series. "They had to be red, white and blue," he said. "It's the nation's pastime in the nation's capital. What else would you have?"
And who would run the team?
Initially, baseball officials wanted Bob Watson as general manager. But Watson, a former general manager for the Houston Astros and New York Yankees, turned them down, citing the fact that the team had no owner. Other options were former Montreal and Boston general manager Dan Duquette and former Cincinnati general manager Jim Bowden. Both were out of baseball. Bowden, in fact, served as a baseball analyst on the ESPN morning show "Cold Pizza."
In late October, Tavares needed a general manager so he could decide whether to keep manager Frank Robinson. Things were getting tight. Bowden called DuPuy. "I want to do this," he said.
DuPuy called Tavares, who never had spoken to Bowden. "The sooner the better," Tavares said. Bowden was hired Nov. 1 and was told that Major League Baseball was giving him a $50 million budget -- a modest figure by baseball standards.
The chaos didn't stop, and to some degree, it still hasn't. When the team needed office space, the solution was to rent trailers that sit in the RFK Stadium parking lot -- trailers that are still there.
When the team announced its name during a ceremony in November at Union Station, a protester ran on stage, screaming about how the District was getting a bad deal. The team's plans to unveil its uniforms and bring players to the city for the first time were canceled the night before in reaction to changes Cropp made in the stadium legislation. Players Zach Day and Terrmel Sledge, who were to model the gear, were sent home.
Even after the D.C. Council approved the stadium package, the team faced unusual hurdles. Tavares worked out of nondescript offices in a K Street law firm. The sales and marketing staffs worked out of the RFK trailers, right next to the "official team store," which was merely another trailer. When the team hired Bowden, he said he did not want his staff working out of trailers in a parking lot, so he set them up on the fourth floor of Space Coast Stadium in the Viera, Fla., brush fields where the Nationals would hold spring training.
The team did no advertising, but the ticket office was overwhelmed with calls. Would-be ticket buyers said last week that they had to hold for as long as an hour and a half. Many fans who have bought season tickets still have not received them because the ticket printer in Canada is behind schedule.
Meanwhile, the nettlesome problem of Angelos festered. Selig wanted a peaceful resolution. He dispatched DuPuy to Baltimore.
Over six months, Angelos and DuPuy met dozens of times, sometimes in the company of other attorneys, sometimes alone. The sticking point became long-term control over broadcasting rights in the Washington-Baltimore region.
With talks bogged down two weeks before Opening Day, Angelos sent attorney Alan Rifkin to close the deal. After several all-night negotiating sessions, they reached an agreement: The Orioles would own 66 percent of a regional sports network; assume all the risks and most of the start-up costs; and guarantee to the Nationals an annual television revenue of $21 million.
The deal kept baseball from having to make up any lost revenues the Orioles might suffer. But it could reduce the Nationals' sale price and put them forever at a disadvantage in the National League East.
Still, the agreement clears the way for the sale of the team. Baseball hopes to find an owner by the July All-Star break. And Selig, regarded for so long as D.C. baseball's nemesis, plans to be at RFK Stadium on Opening Day.
"I'm feeling very good about this," Selig said last week. "There could be a great rivalry with Baltimore. I'm a great one for geographical rivalries, and this one should really be good."
Staff writer Michael Laris contributed to this report.