Sometimes, all that matters is the big picture. Yet everybody gets entangled, and eventually embattled in the details.
That's the problem between the District and baseball. Both sides are locked in an arm-wrestling contest over the final details of a lease for the new $535 million Anacostia waterfront ballpark. Sensible adults should be able to resolve such matters, some of which have been on the table for a year.
Yet there has been an impasse for many weeks. As a result of this stare down, everything that really matters in the long term for baseball in Washington is being damaged or jeopardized. So much that is good -- for the Nationals, for Washington and for baseball -- hangs fire while everybody bickers.
The latest example of the damage done by delay was reported in The Washington Post on Monday: "D.C. Ballpark's Rising Price Tag Compels Cuts." For the past year, commodity prices for many raw materials that go into a ballpark have risen.
What you've seen at the gas pump has happened to the price of almost every construction component from copper to lumber. Also, the cost of local real estate has jumped in the last year. So, the land the District needed to buy for the park rose, too.
The longer this delay continues, the more likely costs will rise even further. The issue is not whether Washington will be able to meet its promise to build a new park for the Nationals. For $535 million, including $300 million currently set aside for the ballpark itself (a price tag already cut from $337 million), the Nats will get a new place to play.
But will it be a special, perhaps spectacular home field that draws droves of fans, helps produce a winning team and makes the city proud? Will it be the baseball equivalent of the successful and handsome MCI Center, which has been a magnet for surrounding commerce?
Or will the baseball centerpiece in Southeast's development be nickel-and-dimed until it is a merely utilitarian, stripped-down stadium like the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, which suffices but isn't "great" at all. Washington is in no danger of losing the Nats or failing to build a functional stadium. The fear is that the city and the sport will dawdle and dither until a great opportunity is lost. Decades of blame will accrue to those who create a mediocre park when something iconic and central to the city's life, and the sport's lore, might have been created.
When compared to Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, will Washington end up with a jewel or a joke? If you want to see what tight-budget minimalist construction produces, just go to FedEx Field. There's nothing wrong with it. But not much is right, either. The next architectural compliment FedEx Field receives will probably be its first. The best thing that happens to FedEx Field is sundown. For night games, the place is so vague and vast it looks magical. But on Sunday afternoons, don't look too closely.
Of course, the paralysis that currently surrounds every aspect of the Nats franchise is tied directly to the ballpark-lease tussle. "If you were Ted Lerner, would you spend $450 million to buy a baseball team unless you knew the terms of the lease?" one well-placed baseball source said to me recently.
Washington can't get an owner until the District and baseball stop their lease fussing. For weeks, District officials were concerned that baseball might pick an out-of-town candidate as the Nats owner. That seems very unlikely. Real estate developer Lerner is now the favorite to get the team especially if he gets former Atlanta sports executive Stan Kasten in his group. The name of Jeff Smulyan from Indianapolis was run up the Washington flagpole to see what the response would be. The sport heard Washington's answer clearly. It wasn't, "Great idea."
However, baseball will never give away its prerogative to name the Nats' owner. Why set such a precedent? The best the sport can do is wink, float trial balloons and go through back channels to convince the District that it won't get blindsided. Bud Selig now understands the depth of Washington's desire for local ownership. If he winked any harder, he would get eye strain.
Can cities trust baseball? Of course not. But can a city evaluate where baseball's self-interest lies? Can it extrapolate the sport's intentions from its comments? Almost certainly. Baseball and Selig had little use for Washington for decades. Even 18 months ago, they were extremely skeptical. Now, they're infatuated. Isn't it amazing how drawing nearly 34,000 fans a game for a team that had minimal marketing, an old stadium and abysmal TV exposure can changes peoples' minds?
One reason the Red Sox ended up with John Henry as owner is because Selig believed that Henry, with Larry Lucchino as his right-hand man, would be best suited to making the Red Sox successful and profitable. Hard as it may be for Washingtonians (like me) to believe, the Nationals are viewed very similarly within baseball now -- as a franchise to be fostered.
That's why the current stalling and bluffing between the town and the sport seems so destructive. Both sides think they hold negotiating aces. The District feels empowered, its political chest puffed, now that everybody realizes Washington may be a big baseball success story, not just an improvement over Montreal. However, baseball always thinks it holds the stronger hand with any city and can't wait to reassert its dominance. The desire to play hardball with local pols is one of the sport's worst traits.
For example, look at the Florida Marlins: This week, baseball gave the Fish the right to explore relocating the franchise because Miami has refused for years to finance a publicly built ballpark. So, the Marlins are now slashing payroll and have, so far this week, traded Josh Beckett to Boston and Carlos Delgado to the Mets. Center fielder Juan Pierre, whom the Nats would love to acquire -- if they had an owner to authorize a big deal -- will probably be the next salary-dump deal by Florida.
By letting the Marlins dismember their team and court other cities, was baseball -- in its usual charming way -- sending a message to the District about what happens to towns that think they can support baseball in obsolete stadiums?
Maybe. But now is the time to abandon such tough-guy negotiating methods. Both sides should stop stalling. Stop pretending to debate who pays for the last 2,000 parking spaces for the richest customers. Or (get a load of this one) what happens if the District is destroyed by a super catastrophe like New Orleans and the new ballpark has cost overruns. Seriously, that is the kind of stuff these geniuses claim they've been squabbling about. What, no mandatory Meteor From Mars insurance?
Let's finally cut to the chase. Both sides need to stop posturing over the last few million bucks and bragging rights. Instead, compromise, shake hands and start mining the gold from this Washington mother lode. Together.