- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 5, 2004

There’s no renegotiating with baseball. At least that’s how the maxim goes.

It has been repeated so many times — most recently by Bud Selig in his declaration last week that “the deal we made [with the District] is a deal” — it now arguably ranks with Tom Hanks’ famous movie line, “There’s no crying in baseball.”

But the pursuit by District officials, most notably D.C. Council chairman Linda W. Cropp, to improve the city’s relocation deal with Major League Baseball is quite real and deadly serious. It also highlights just how deeply into uncharted territory the move of the Montreal Expos to Washington has ventured.

First baseball overcame its own internal intransigence and green-lighted its first team move in 33 years. Then it began talks with Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos on a mammoth compensation package that, if enacted, will provide him with fiscal guarantees enjoyed by no other team in the history of the game.

Now Selig, despite his strident public comments, has directed his staff to meet with Cropp and District Mayor Anthony A. Williams, effectively reopening talks on a carefully crafted relocation pact that was more than two years in the making.

Up for discussion will be potential sharing of stadium cost overruns, greater legal protection for the District should the ballpark near the Anacostia River waterfront fall behind schedule through no fault of its own, and additional community benefits from the Washington Nationals.

Cropp’s motivations for forcing MLB back to the table have come under serious question, with some suggesting she is driven foremost by a desire for the spotlight or future mayoral ambitions rather than protecting District coffers. She predictably rejects such notions, to the point of openly complaining about some of the attacks levied her way.

Regardless of her inspiration, Cropp has succeeded in creating a discussion few thought would ever happen. At least one meeting between MLB and the city likely will be scheduled before the council conducts its second reading on the ballpark bill Dec.14.

“I need to keep people’s feet to the fire,” Cropp said. “I still think we can make this a better deal.”

It is important to note, however, she has had plenty of help. Selig needs the Nationals to succeed as much as Washington does, perhaps more so. Selig also is walking a tightrope on the explosive steroid issue and, similarly to Cropp, is asking the players’ union to modify an existing contract and grant concessions which were denied during initial negotiations.

And several city officials, most notably D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission chairman Mark Tuohey, enjoy an unusually strong working relationship with Jerry Reinsdorf, head of MLB’s relocation committee and one of the prickliest characters in all of professional sports.

Selig, however, does not have a reputation for careless remarks. He measures his words carefully and often packs coded messages into his public comments. And when he told reporters last week, “The deal we made is a deal,” the message was all too clear: We can talk, but don’t get your hopes up. We still have the lion’s share of bargaining power.

Cropp and Williams likely will emerge from the upcoming talks with some specific community grants from baseball and perhaps a plan to share stadium cost overruns should they happen. But that latter point could become somewhat academic as Williams cannot insist enough the ballpark will arrive on budget and Tuohey gained his post on a strict charge of fiscal prudence.

Cropp’s push to seek private financing for the stadium does not present MLB with major problems, because it does not directly relate to the Nationals’ revenues. And if the search for private funds fails, the current public financing plan proceeds as approved by the council.

The core thrust of the agreement ultimately will stand unchanged. The District must deliver a new stadium at the Southeast site by March1, 2008, or the future of the Nationals in Washington is in jeopardy.

“We’re going to proceed with the agreement we have,” Selig said.

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