Inside the D.C. Council chambers, the Build It and They Will Come crowd proudly wore their red hats. They wanted their stadium, their team.
Never mind that their leader, Mayor Anthony A. Williams, refused to show his face at the meeting. He was busy skulking around the Wilson Building trying not to be noticed.
Meantime, the doomsayers were scattered, a band of rebels waiting for their three minutes before the council on Thursday. Their mission was to sway a majority of council members who have already made up their mind that baseball is healthy and sustaining for the District.
Feel sorry for the rebels. They had no idea this is not negotiating with Giant Food to put a new discount drug store in Tenleytown; it's more akin to being bamboozled by the International Olympic Committee. Major League Baseball has already effectively taken your money -- it's now a matter of what form of payment you will use.
The mayor knows he has the votes to pass the $500 million -- and growing -- stadium proposal that will cinch baseball's return. And if he is worried, he can always fall back on the seven shills who showed up at that glorious news conference last month to announce baseball was returning after 33 years. What flip-flopper among them wants to come across as the villain who prevented his civic dream?
So the District's people are left with a deal, and it works like this:
Baseball's owners take everything and leave you with a promise. They tell you professional athletics will not only make your city whole again but it will surely serve as an engine of economic growth. Ten, 20 years down the line, when they have siphoned your treasury, you are left praying that the promise is fulfilled. Or else.
Look, baseball is back and it may indeed have a huge emotional and spiritual impact on the District, especially if the team wins. But you're getting something that makes you feel good -- not some guaranteed urban revitalization. For the mayor and his backers to promise anything of the sort is just dishonest. Peruse almost every study on the financial benefits of taxpayer-financed stadiums and they all say the same thing: Aside from initial neighborhood beautification, there is no definitive evidence that those millions make your city more millions. It is a monstrous gamble.
"To the average resident," began Adrian M. Fenty, one of three council members who opposes the plan, "we've lost our mind."
The proponents for baseball keep portraying the killjoys as unrealistic, saying not a dime would go to any other District need if baseball were taken off the table, that there is no relation between crumbling schools and Opening Day. Linda W. Cropp, the council chairman, almost admonished a group of persuasive students from Eastern High School, lecturing them on this "fact."
Which is worse than naive. That's just wrong and misleading and manipulative. Arlington, Tex., remains the largest city in America without a public transportation system. Why? Because the city has never been able to pass the public bond issue after the stadium was built with taxpayer dollars in 1991. Psychologically, the ballpark became a choice in people's minds -- just as one will in the District the next time a bond measure is proposed for a real city need.
Cropp had another embarrassing moment. She tried to link the construction of MCI Center with the proposed baseball stadium on the Anacostia waterfront -- a stadium that must be built for Major League Baseball to come and grace the District with its presence again.
Marion Barry, the former mayor who had come to testify at the emotionally charged session that went into the wee hours of Friday morning, corrected Cropp. Barry made it clear that the District never paid a dime for the construction of MCI Center, saying, "Abe Pollin paid for the construction." Cropp quickly moved on as if the difference were minor.
Pollin, the Wizards' owner, must be scratching his head these days. Think about the logic: A civic-minded philanthropist, a man whose charity is unparalleled among modern professional sports owners, had to build his own arena less than a decade ago because the District could not spare an extra $200 million. But that same city is willing to give an owner to be named later $500 million-plus for his stadium?
Mayor Williams and Mark Tuohey, the chairman of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission who negotiated with the city to seize the Montreal Expos, had to sweeten the pot when other suitors became involved. So they gave away the store to procure baseball. Fine. You just wish they would say that instead of soft-pedaling this great deal they have allegedly struck.
Carol Schwartz, a proponent of the plan, voiced major concern over the public funding. Her tone deviated from her grin the day the city got baseball. She actually said she would take it upon herself to continue negotiating with Major League Baseball, which either shows she was incredibly misled or she has not done her homework the past few months.
The deal is done. They took us. The city loses millions on the ballpark lease because of minuscule rent increases for the new owners that are not in concert with inflation. The District is contractually obligated to improve the infrastructure -- from a Metro stop to roads leading into the new stadium -- but it will not share in parking revenue. Same goes for naming rights. All that economic improvement for restaurants and businesses outside the stadium? They're in competition for the entertainment dollar inside the new ballpark.
For this gamble to pay off, a double honeymoon is needed. Fans have to be so enraptured by the return of baseball that they'll pay to see a very bad team for possibly three years at RFK Stadium. After that, the food courts and charm of a new stadium need to pull them in in large numbers.
The people who brought back baseball are counting on more nostalgia than the former Montreal Expos can offer at any time in the foreseeable future. Unless you can host a Super Bowl or several playoff rounds, the financial impact is static. Go ask the old Senators how many years nostalgia buys you.
Many New Englanders felt the emotional tug of the grand old game last week, the night their Boston Red Sox won a World Series for the first time since 1918. Baseball undeniably has a powerful pull, binding families and generations.
But the reality is, this is one of the greatest fiscal gambles the District will ever undertake. If the mayor and his supporting council members can just admit that and stop with the engine-of-economic-growth babble until a few years down the road, this process would be a lot easier to stomach.
It's like Charmyonne Bailey, a junior at rundown Eastern High School, poignantly said during her three minutes in front of the council on Thursday.
"Why would you make something new when you can't even keep up the old?"