I was front and center a few weeks ago on that triumphant afternoon at the City Museum when Mayor Anthony A. Williams announced the District had come to an agreement with Major League Baseball that would return the game here after a 33-year absence. Standing no more than 10 feet away, pledging her undying support, was Linda W. Cropp, the D.C. Council chairman. She took the microphone and screamed louder and went on longer than anybody. She was a baseball evangelist, spreading the gospel as if she were in the pulpit of a Baptist church on Sunday morning.
Now, after issuing her "new proposal" yesterday, it turns out that she is pretty much a complete fraud. While Williams is standing steadfast in the face of some predictable opposition, Cropp has turned her back on the very deal to which she gave her word. As a result, baseball in D.C. is in jeopardy.
The deal to bring the Expos here wasn't to build a stadium anyplace, or someplace, or where Cropp believes it should be built. The deal is for a stadium to be built along a specific spot on the Anacostia waterfront.
And if I ran MLB I would call Williams and say, "The deal's off the table. We're not accepting your council chairman's bait-and-switch idiocy. Do we have a deal or not? And if not, we'll let the team play in RFK until we strike a deal with Las Vegas, or perhaps we'll more fully explore our options in Northern Virginia. If you don't get the stadium built where you promised, you don't get the team. Period."
After Cropp announced her betrayal, Williams said her move threatens to "blow this thing up," and added: "The dream of having baseball back in Washington is at risk. It is in jeopardy. I can't emphasize that enough, so I am trying to raise the volume. We have waited 10, 20, 30 years for this and now it is in jeopardy."
This isn't political rhetoric. If Williams's quotes sound desperate and even a bit frantic, that's because he is both. Everything about this deal was "location, location, location." At least partly to appease Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, most folks within MLB would rather have relocated the Expos to Northern Virginia. If the Northern Virginia folks could have found a site far away from the Orioles, in Loudoun County or western Fairfax County, that was accessible to 40,000 people without having to drive 90 minutes in weekday rush-hour traffic, that's where the team would be.
But D.C. had the location. And D.C. was smart about showing MLB what the future could be. Williams and D.C. officials promised the Anacostia waterfront location, not the RFK parking lot. Retailers, last I checked, aren't dying to set up shop in the RFK parking lot. If the RFK parking lot was so viable, why wasn't a deal done to put the new baseball stadium there in the first place?
The people who do all the screaming in the town hall-style meetings probably don't make it to Denver or Cleveland to see what sports stadiums and arenas have done to revitalize those cities, to lure businesses that create new jobs, and lure developers who want to build new housing, which creates real-estate taxes. Sometimes, I can't believe the stupid junk I read from academics who spin their silly obstructionist excuses on what stadiums don't bring, when all you have to do is look at what they actually contribute in Cleveland and in Denver, or for that matter along 7th Street near MCI Center, which around here ought to be Exhibit A.
The Anacostia waterfront location is close enough to downtown to be attractive to baseball, and empty enough to not require displacing a substantial number of residents. Cropp knew that when she signed on, and she had to know there would be some opposition because there's opposition to everything any city tries to do. But at the first sign of a little heat, from a fellow councilman or some citizen action group, she bailed.
And now, the whole thing is in jeopardy. This is why my approach to baseball in D.C. has always been, "I'll believe it when they're on the field." Because somewhere deep inside I knew somebody would cave or run scared and betray the deal, and it should have been obvious who that would be when I saw Cropp that afternoon belting out her praise for the project in a voice so annoyingly loud she threatened to shatter eardrums.
The inability to see things through in the District is the main reason the Washington Redskins are playing in Landover, where fans face a drive to and from FedEx Field that makes for the worst game-day situation in pro football. Jack Kent Cooke wanted to put that stadium right near RFK, but the people in power at the time couldn't get that done. D.C. is cursed with too many pseudo-politicians, like Cropp, who tuck and run at the first hint of opposition. And this apparently is vintage Cropp: wake up, see which way the wind is blowing and only then take a side.
Baseball coming to D.C. isn't the most important thing about the Anacostia waterfront deal. It's about turning that area, most of it simply blight, into something shining and inviting and productive. But Cropp and anybody else who lied to the mayor then and tries to change the deal now is threatening to undo that.