Every day is just a holiday for the Nationals, isn't it? Last week, they lost Esteban Loaiza and Hector Carrasco to free agency. Who needs a starter with a 3.77 ERA in 217 innings? As for Carrasco, he was just a problem. Do you use him in relief, where his ERA was 2.04? Or do you use him as a starter, where his ERA was 2.03? Let somebody else worry about it now.
Yesterday, the Nats had another tough decision taken off their hands. Now they won't have to worry about A.J. Burnett hurting the feelings of either Livan Hernandez or John Patterson by challenging to be the Opening Day starter. A.J.'s a Blue Jay. In September, the Nats were down to a four-man rotation, including Loaiza and Carrasco. Now they have a two-man rotation. Maybe Bud Selig should just pick the new Nats owner who has the best arm.
For 33 seasons, the baseball situation in Washington was bad. But at least it was simple. Oh, for the good old days. Now it's bad and complicated, too. The team doesn't have an owner, a permanent president or general manager or even a manager who is signed for next season. The club's chief financial officer is a part-timer working out of Canada.
None of these things, however, presents the biggest long-term hurdle for the Nats. Presentable pitchers can be found. If President Tony Tavares, General Manager Jim Bowden and Manager Frank Robinson returned (by default) to run the team next season, the franchise would still be in better hands than most clubs.
No, the Nationals' great overriding issue is whether they will get a new stadium. And, if so, where will it be and when will it be finished. You thought that was all decided last Christmas? Guess again.
There's a small problem with the new park. It costs more all the time. On the days when the price of steel, concrete or real estate doesn't jump, somebody in the D.C. government finds a way to move an expensive item -- like repaving streets or expanding a Metro stop -- entirely into the ballpark budget. The latest doomsday estimates top $700 million.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams's grand plan for revitalizing Southeast involved more than a ballpark. He foresaw new hotels and restaurants. The Navy Yard is expanding. New apartment and residential housing is part of the theme. But, somehow, almost all of the infrastructure costs for this vision of the future fall into the ballpark budget. Hmmm, just the Nats' luck.
At least baseball officials recently agreed to kick $20 million into the pot to help build the park. They get the money back over the next 500 years with a slice of parking revenues. Still, nothing beats cash on the barrelhead. "We didn't have to give them anything," grumped one baseball executive. "We're just trying to help 'em out." And give the members of the D.C. Council some political cover, too.
So, the ultimate moment of decision on the new ballpark has apparently arrived. This December, not last December, will tell the tale. As the Council makes this decision, it should be honest with the city and with itself: The main reason Washington authorized a publicly financed stadium was because of all the additional benefits -- to the city, not just to baseball fans -- that the project might ultimately produce.
Mayor Williams saw the team and its new park as the centerpiece of an urban rejuvenation that would dwarf the impact of a mere sports team. He only promised baseball a sweet deal because he thought Washington would eventually get back far more in return. If you want to see what he had in mind, drive along the I-295 overpass and look down South Capitol Street. There's massive construction underway already where, a year ago, there was almost nothing except light-industrial decay.
In the mind of any rational District taxpayer, the justification for luring a team here with the bait of a new park was so that baseball enthusiasm could serve as the catalyst for much grander and socially justifiable goals. We'll see if it happens.
The view here is that the District should build the Southeast ballpark or else forget the whole grandiose idea. Do it right or don't do it at all. Just admit that the city didn't have the stomach for the financial gamble. Even after watching the Nats draw 2.73 million to RFK Stadium.
Whatever the District does, the worst alternative is to reach a wasteful "compromise" by spending hundreds of millions of dollars to construct a park for the Nats on the same site as RFK. A new publicly financed park at RFK does nothing for anybody -- except the Nationals and baseball fans. For the city, it does nothing.
Even for the Nats, it poses severe risks. Due to the need for two to three years of environmental testing and permitting, the Nats might need to play in the current RFK for five years. Baseball honeymoons can last quite a while. But five years?
My parents lived on Capitol Hill for nearly 50 years, a short bike ride from RFK as a boy. No new park at RFK will ever have an iota of social utility. It will never be a "destination" like Camden Yards. A new park at RFK would increase the Nats' attendance and chances for baseball success. But that's all. If that's enough, build it.
If everybody had known one year ago what we all know now, then everybody would have acted far faster and compromised much more. A ballpark plan would have devised within the original $535 million limit, a lease with baseball would have been signed, MLB would have named a Nats owner and land for the park would've been bought so ground could been broken.
But none of that happened. Everybody involved, in baseball and in the District, messed up. Everybody gets an "F."
The District and its politicians now have a clear choice. They can take the cost-overrun risks inherent in building an expensive park, but one that may have enormous long-term benefits for the city.
Or they can simply renovate RFK, abandon plans for a new park and, presumably, doom the Nats to third-class baseball citizenship. Eventually, Washington might well lose the franchise -- again -- to some other city that would build a ballpark.
Or, the city can build a less expensive, but still extremely costly park at the RFK site. Baseball fans would cheer. The city would keep its team. But an enormous opportunity, with possibilities far beyond baseball, would be lost.