- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2003

Pay no attention to the grandstanding against ballpark financing that took place in Thursday’s marathon D.C. Council hearing. The inside talk is that the ballpark money package will get the OK with a little tweaking.

No one wants to sit there and give Tony “Babe” Williams an easy pass to push his $338.7million ballpark financing plan through, not when people are crying legitimate blues about no money for schools and hospitals — even though one has nothing to do with the other.

The tax money for the ballpark doesn’t exist now, and it won’t exist without the ballpark. There is no $338.7million to spend on more necessary resources. It is not a choice to spend either/or. If you build the ballpark, the money generated through sales taxes and gross receipts taxes from District businesses then will be there and will be used to pay for the ballpark.

If there is no ballpark, that money remains what it is right now — an idea, nothing more.

That may not be fair, but the fact is that businessmen are not lining up and testifying that they would be more than happy to pay more taxes for doctors and teachers. They did come, though, ready and willing to pay the gross receipts taxes necessary to pay for a ballpark, because they don’t need any economic impact studies by pencil-neck geeks to tell them that more than 40,000 people coming into town 81 times a year will mean money in their pockets.

The problem, though, is that this is not the time for political jockeying and business as usual in the District. Now is the time to step up to the plate with a corked bat and knock all this talk about Puerto Rico or Portland, Ore., out of the ballpark.

Now is the time, as Michael Corleone would say, to make them an offer they can’t refuse.

There is a relocation committee of baseball owners and officials studying where to move the Montreal Expos. Some members already have visited Portland, where the clueless mayor made a big show of their visit — the last thing Major League Baseball wants. They are supposed to come here for site visits to the two other competing jurisdictions, the District and Northern Virginia, though no one is saying when that will happen.

Then the committee headed by baseball’s chief operating officer, Bob DuPuy, is scheduled to make a recommendation to major league owners by July14, the day before the All-Star Game, in Chicago. Many people believe the owners will opt to just keep things status quo — the Expos playing in San Juan and Montreal — for at least one more season and maybe even beyond that. There is the possibility that they could increase the number of games in San Juan from 22 to 41 and even the ridiculous fairy tale that the Expos would play all 81 games in San Juan next season while the fate of the club remains on hold. (Unless Alex Rodriguez or Sammy Sosa or Carlos Delgado is on that field against the Expos for all 81 of those games, someone is going to take a bath if that idea actually comes to pass.)

It’s even possible that baseball could play some games in Portland next year. What have they got to lose there? They have a minor league ballpark that seats more than Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, and neither Washington nor Northern Virginia has that option. The D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission is still not willing to offer RFK Stadium as a temporary solution for the Expos — not without a commitment to stay.

“We would have to put a lot of money into RFK to make that work, and I don’t think neither us or baseball will be willing to do that,” commission chairman John Richardson said. “If baseball is going to come, let’s do it the right way.”

My fear is that the longer this takes, the farther away relocating the Expos gets and the closer MLB gets to contracting the Expos, which they can by 2007 based on the current labor agreement.

Those involved in the baseball effort are talking optimistically about baseball coming to the Washington area by next year. “The possibility of another split season for the Expos can’t be that attractive,” Richardson said. “I am optimistic, and I think it is more than ‘irrational exuberance,’ as Alan Greenspan would say.”

On the other side of the river, Bill Collins, chairman of Virginia Baseball, the group that wants to purchase the Expos and move them into Northern Virginia (somewhere), said he doesn’t see any reason to worry that a recommendation to move the Expos won’t be announced as planned next month.

“We are very optimistic regarding the time frame and schedule set by Major League Baseball,” Collins said. “We think they are on target to make an announcement.”

Optimism may not be the right approach leading up to next month’s meeting in Chicago. If there is a team to get, the District and Northern Virginia need to get it while they can — put the pressure back on MLB and force it to either move the Expos here or turn away a deal in place.

You want to talk optimism? Once, the Topps Baseball Card Co. printed cards with “Washington” instead of San Diego when everyone was optimistic about the Padres being sold and moving to the District in 1974.

That was 30 years ago. I’ll take paranoia over optimism, thank you.

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