- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 15, 2003

The words came out of Jack Evans, D.C. Council finance committee chairman, like a knife.

“At some point, I am prepared to walk on [baseball],” he said.

Evans’ comment, directed foremost at Major League Baseball, no doubt was fueled in part by a desire to gain some kind of leverage in a relocation process in which there is little for any candidate city.

Evans, however, was not alone during a six-hour council hearing last week to consider Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ $338.7million ballpark bill, and the feeling does appear to be genuine. As much as the District covets baseball, its political leadership is not willing to acquire it at any price.

“I like baseball, but I do not want to break the bank on this, and a lot of what we’re proposing is a little precarious,” said Carol Schwartz, Republican at-large council member.

Such comments have been few and far between during Washington’s three-decade-plus quest for baseball. Rather, the city’s conversations with MLB executives have repeatedly focused on the explosive growth of the region’s population and economy, the readiness of RFK Stadium to house baseball on a short-term basis and its desire to be a good partner to baseball.

But the Williams stadium bill has, in just a matter of days, opened fresh wounds within the city’s psyche, even among those who were already expecting a difficult legislative process. The Ballpark Revenue Amendment Act of 2003 is the first major piece of legislation to reach the council in this whole long search for baseball. And even though it proposes to divert no money from the current general fund, it still represents a massive building project precisely when the city is cutting basic services.

The council also is staring at MLB’s insistence for maximum public financing for a stadium, as well as another demand by MLB to negotiate the stadium lease, and sees those for what they are: simple, naked strategies designed to yield a top-drawer purchase price for the Montreal Expos. It’s a variation of the classic pro sports ploy of threatening to leave town without a new stadium, and the council does not like it.

“There’s no question this demand for public financing is directly predicated on driving up the franchise sales price,” Evans said. “It creates a terrible negotiating posture for any city.”

While Williams’ office and the council continue to debate terms of the ballpark bill, the mayor is clearly counting on the legacy question: is any council member willing to risk going into the history books as the one who killed perhaps the District’s last chance for baseball?

More broadly, is Washington really prepared to give up the baseball chase after all these years? To many in town, baseball, even without a D.C. team currently in place, is a vital part of the local culture. And deciding to walk away now could end up costing the District tens of millions more later if the city elects to get back in the chase. That is exactly what happened to Cleveland and its reversal of position on funding a new football stadium.

The answer to those questions could be yes. Eric Price, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, echoed the council’s comments that baseball cannot be done “at any cost.” And he has already walked away from several major development projects, including a downtown Macy’s store, when the proposed financial terms spiraled out of control.

Several council members also remain unconcerned about the legacy issue, believing that voter distaste for public stadium financing will protect them come election time.

So what to do now? Markup of the Williams bill is already under way, District officials will meet with three members of MLB’s relocation committee early next week, and both events will be telling.

The city wants desperately to make a solid, sensible stadium deal that works for everybody. And the District wants some much-needed clarity on the relocation process. Will baseball, in fact, begin the moving process in mid-July as previously stated, or wait yet another year as a growing legion of industry insiders believe? And what is realistically expected in terms of stadium legislation?

To force the process along, District officials may put a limited-time window on any stadium financing, lasting either 90 or 120 days before it would expire without the Expos definitively moving to D.C. Such a tactic has proved successful in other areas including Arizona, reinforcing the widespread notion that baseball, always a slow-moving beast, responds quickest when its hands are forced.

It also is more direct than Northern Virginia’s open-ended request for a conditional award of the Expos before it would complete stadium financing.

“This isn’t the final [stadium] deal we’re talking about now,” said Bobby Goldwater, executive director of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission. “It’s about the ability to have the tools to make a final deal. We’re exactly where we need to be now, but it’s coming time for all of us to take some important steps.”

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