Thursday, August 19, 2004

Over the background babble of his triplets playing in the kitchen, the fury and frustration in D.C. Council member Jack Evans’ voice was loud and clear during a radio interview about Major League Baseball’s incessant indecision on bringing baseball back to Washington.

And he was still fuming when I talked with him yesterday. “I don’t know what else these guys want from me. … What more have I got to do?” Mr. Evans said.

So exasperated is he with the team owners’ incessant delays in finding a home for the hapless, homeless Montreal Expos that Mr. Evans uncharacteristically said, “Go ahead, quote me.” You’ll just have to imagine his scurrilous sentiments about “all this chicken-and-egg stuff.”

“They keep saying we haven’t built a stadium yet, and it’s clear we’re not going to do that,” Mr. Evans said, until the baseball owners award the team to the District. “I’ve assured them every which way to Tuesday that we can do these things” they are concerned about, Mr. Evans said.

Mr. Evans was emphatic: Give us the team, and we’ll give you a stadium.

Mr. Evans, who as chairman of the council’s powerful Committee on Finance and Revenue easily can be considered one of the most levelheaded politicians on the inconsistent legislative body, has every right to go off on the sluggish Major League Baseball owners.

Just award the team to somebody, anybody, right now. I really don’t care who. Then we can all focus on other, more pressing issues at home plate — such as educating children, feeding the hungry and caring for the elderly.

Rattling off the benefits of the nation’s capital, Mr. Evans said, “C’mon. D.C.’s by far the best of all the sites. … How’s Virginia even in the running? … No other city even comes close.”

You’ve heard them all, but the major D.C. asset boils down to location, location, location. Big television market, big spenders, big investors, and here’s the kicker: “We already have a stadium — RFK,” Mr. Evans said, barely able to contain an “ugh.”

For three years running, the District has been among the leading contenders to relocate the Expos. Bunt for Portland, Ore., and throw the dice for a Las Vegas move. Virginia gets two strikes either with the Northern Virginia boondocks or the Norfolk battleships as the new baseball stadium’s backdrop. And there’s Monterrey, Mexico, in the dugout.

Everyone is willing to bend over backward to play ball except the tentative team owners — who collectively now own the Expos. Let ‘em choke on the peanuts and Cracker Jacks because “I don’t care if they never come back.” No matter, the Montreal Expos are eventually going to land somewhere, and it might as well be here at RFK Stadium, the least costly and most convenient of D.C. sites. (Though Norfolk, where I can lie on Virginia Beach during the day and catch a game featuring the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter at night is a summertime daydream.) However, at the MLB owners’ meeting in Philadelphia this week, Robert A. DuPuy, MLB president and chief operating officer, said there is no front-runner. “There’s nothing yet that we can tie a ribbon on and sign today,” he said.

You can see the smoke billowing from Mr. Evans’ ears.

“Here’s where the frustration comes in with the owner who said we would have a decision August 18, and now they say ‘no,’ and we’re strung along here,” Mr. Evans said.

“The problem is Peter Angelos and Bud Selig, that’s it,” Mr. Evans said of the owner of the Baltimore Orioles and baseball commissioner, respectively. Mr. Angelos doesn’t want Washington or Northern Virginia siphoning off his baseball fans (translation: revenue). Is that why he had a fan-appreciation day with a picnic in a D.C. park the other day, er, 45 miles from Camden Yards? Who knows what excuse Mr. Selig has for playing Marathon Monopoly. Maybe he’s simply afraid of an angry Mr. Angelos.

Still, Mr. Evans suggests that “inside baseball is with us.” Inside baseball might be with the District, but are those inside the District with baseball? It depends on whom you ask.

Mr. Evans said he talks to “many, many more people who want a baseball team here.” In the hometown circles I traverse, I haven’t heard one soul hankering for a baseball team or a new baseball stadium. In fact, the detractors say the last thing the city needs to build is a baseball stadium. Better the funds are spent fixing schools, for example.

The price tag for a new stadium in the District ranges from $280 million to rebuild on the RFK Stadium site to $340 million for the Benjamin Banneker Park site. MLB owners refuse to pay to build their own stadiums. The sporadic return on the capital expended by local governments on these venues makes the investment questionable.

“There is no pot of money for a stadium and no pot of money for schools,” Mr. Evans said. “You borrow money and pay the debt service from sales tax. What money are you going to use to repay the debt on schools?”

Mr. Evans said the baseball stadium — like the convention center and the MCI Center — will be paid for with a financing package that will be repaid through revenue from taxes generated by the stadium and graduated taxes on larger business that are willing to pay that expenditure. Nearly 80 percent of city business would be exempt under his proposed formula.

“Anyone who says we should build schools instead of a stadium doesn’t understand financing,” Mr. Evans said. “That’s a ridiculous argument.”

Maybe so, but the effort and attention being expended on building a sporting arena so a few rich folks can have fun and even fewer rich men can get richer frustrates as well as infuriates me.

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