Sunday, November 7, 2004

Major League Baseball has made plain its firm intent to move the Montreal Expos out of Washington if the plan by D.C. Council chairwoman Linda Cropp to build a ballpark on the grounds of RFK Stadium stands, said Mark Tuohey, chairman of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission.

MLB officials publicly took a neutral stance on Cropp’s surprise maneuver Friday, when she sought to alter a detailed relocation contract calling for a ballpark near South Capitol Street SE. But in extensive private discussions with District officials continuing this weekend, baseball’s tone is considerably darker.

“Baseball is very unhappy about this. This has got to be worked out,” Tuohey said. “RFK is not the appropriate long-term site. Baseball was set on that, and so were we. And Linda was certainly in on these negotiations. If this doesn’t get worked out, baseball is simply going to be looking elsewhere. They will not be here.”

Baseball’s options for the soon-to-be-renamed Expos next season are likely limited to going back to Olympic Stadium in Montreal or playing temporarily at the current RFK Stadium. But a refusal to build the new ballpark in Southeast ultimately would cause Washington to lose baseball for the third time, Tuohey said.

“[Baseball is] simply befuddled,” he said.

As Cropp and other District officials convened in Virginia this weekend for an education summit, Tuohey and others were scrambling to put the stadium deal back on track with just two days remaining before the council is set to vote on the measure.

Foremost in those efforts was an attempt to get Cropp on the phone with Jerry Reinsdorf, chairman of MLB’s relocation committee, so she could hear baseball’s objections first-hand. As of last night, that conversation had yet to take place.

Cropp and Reinsdorf were unavailable for comment.

Also in the works is a fiscal impact statement on Cropp’s RFK plan from Natwar Gandhi, District chief financial officer. The report is expected tomorrow.

“There’s a lot of talking going on, back and forth. There’s definitely no let-up on this,” Tuohey said.

Amid baseball’s unhappiness with the Cropp plan, one potential avenue to resurrect the deal is to alter some of the technical language governing the acquisition of the Southeast site from private landowners. It might be possible to put more stringent benchmarks with regard to time or money on seeking the land before giving up on that location. The current relocation agreement requires mutual consent between MLB and the city to select another site only after the Southeast parcel is deemed unavailable.

“This is an area where I think there could be some flexibility,” Tuohey said. “As long as we’re staying at [the Southeast site], I think they’re going to be very reasonable.”

The city council has until Dec.31 to ratify a financing plan for the Southeast stadium to keep the relocation deal alive.

Cropp said she wants the stadium on the RFK grounds because of heavy land costs for the Southeast site, the likelihood of substantial cost overruns and potential damage for the city’s business sector.

But according to Mayor Anthony A. Williams and his key aides, building a new ballpark next to the current RFK Stadium does not solve any of Cropp’s concerns. The soil in the area is contaminated with lead, and residents of the nearby Kingman Park neighborhood, as well as city business leaders, are generally against the plan.

On a larger scale, some executives said the ballpark site switch leaves the city in a much weaker position to cut deals with other major corporations.

“This sends the worst possible message because there’s a real issue of credibility for the District,” said Robert Peck, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. “Only recently have people come to believe the District can follow through on a commitment, certainly after all that happened here in the ‘90s. After this, anybody has plenty of reason to wonder if the city’s word on a deal is going to last more than a week.”

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