Wednesday, December 14, 2005

D.C. Council member Jim Graham told Mayor Anthony A. Williams he was fighting a losing battle in trying to get the lease approved for a new ballpark for the Washington Nationals in Southeast.

“This is, at best, precarious, on the assumption that there are seven votes up here ready to disapprove the lease,” Graham said during a four-hour beatdown of Williams at yesterday’s council hearing on the lease. “So where do we go from there?”

“I don’t want to speculate,” the crippled duck mayor replied. (The term “lame duck” doesn’t do justice to the lack of respect he was accorded yesterday.)

Somebody, though, should speculate. Major League Baseball should find a credible threat to use against the District if the council rejects the lease and demands a whole new round of negotiations.

Not legal jargon, not a financial penalty down the line but a threat the Nationals might just up and leave the District.

No one knows what baseball would do if the lease is rejected. That uncertainty clearly has empowered District politicians looking to benefit by standing up for the taxpayers and backing down the rich and powerful baseball owners.

“A train wreck could very well happen next week,” Graham said, referring to Tuesday’s scheduled vote on the lease.

Retorted Williams: “I am not on the train causing the wreck, and I am sure you don’t want to be either.”

But do Graham and the ballpark opponents on the council really believe a train wreck is coming? Or are they convinced that the city, not baseball, has the leverage this time?

Some of those who now oppose the deal did not want to be branded last December as the politicians who, after 34 years and millions of dollars and manpower hours, killed the city’s chance to bring baseball back. (Except for councilman David Catania, who clearly would consider it his finest hour.) So they straddled the fence, posing as protectors of the District populace but not wanting to be the biggest spoilsports in the history of the city.

The fact is that — good deal or bad — the agreement last year that landed the relocated Montreal Expos in the District happened in large part because of the existence of Northern Virginia as a credible competitor.

District negotiators gave baseball a fully funded ballpark in Southeast Washington because they believed they had to in order to keep the franchise from going south — even to the proposed West Virginia gravel pit location. As District councilman and baseball booster Jack Evans later revealed, “Baseball had stopped talking to us.”

There now is no such threat to create a sense of urgency among District politicians. Las Vegas was never a strong threat. No one ever took seriously Monterrey, Mexico, or Norfolk or any of the other communities baseball tried to entice at least to put on a facade of interest.

At this point, Las Vegas seems to be the only site even possible to consider. And now the Florida Marlins also are looking for a new home after failing to get the money they wanted for a ballpark in South Florida.

So where would the Nationals move? Where is the threat of the train wreck?

What’s ironic is that the best thing that could happen for city baseball supporters is that Virginia, under incoming Gov. Tim Kaine, hints it would get back in the ballgame.

District officials will tell you one of the biggest hurdles in getting baseball back was convincing everyone the District was no longer Marion Barry’s city. There was a new climate in Washington under Anthony Williams.

You would have thought it was 1980 all over again at yesterday’s hearing. You would have thought Tony Williams was just another bureaucrat with a bow tie testifying. You would have thought councilman Barry — wearing a Nationals hat, I guess, for comic relief — was still running the city, demanding resignations, arguing with fellow council members and generally creating havoc.

“The more I hear about this deal, the more it stinks,” he said. “It becomes stinkier and stinkier.”

What baseball better do in the next week is throw enough of a scare into council members to make them hold their noses.

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