Monday, December 19, 2005

If you think the whole District ballpark issue is a mess, think about this:

D.C. wanted to be the host for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Could you possibly imagine what a disaster that would have been? If council members think baseball people are arrogant, what would they have thought when they faced off against International Olympic Committee members? At least they would have been laughed at in different languages.

Talk about cost overruns. The council would have had to sell the naming rights to the entire city to pay that bill. Welcome to Wal-Mart USA, formerly known as Washington, D.C. The District would have bypassed states rights and gone right to corporate rights.

Missed deadlines? The 2016 Games would have been completed by the time the 2012 Games started in Washington.

Yesterday D.C. Council chairwoman Linda Cropp postponed a council vote scheduled for today on the lease agreement for a new ballpark for the Washington Nationals — a move that may be subject to interpretation, given which side you are on in the ballpark debate. But if you are for construction of the ballpark and the future of baseball in Washington, not even Baghdad Bob could interpret this as a good sign.

It may not be a death knell — there is still a ways to go before missed deadlines, such as the one Dec.31 for a lease agreement, actually put in motion events that could imperil major league baseball in Washington. It may be that ballpark supporters just need to fine-tune their deals to get the votes needed for passage.

But Major League Baseball is flexing its muscles nonetheless if the city misses the year-end deadline. In a letter from its chief operating officer, Bob DuPuy, baseball has made its threat: If the city doesn’t meet its commitments, baseball is ready to move to arbitration.

“In arbitration, all prior concessions by MLB would be revisited,” DuPuy wrote.

He also wrote what appeared to be a slap at Mayor Anthony A. Williams and other city officials whose job it was to sell baseball to council members. Citing concessions baseball claims it made on rent payment and other issues, DuPuy wrote, “I was surprised by how few Council Members were aware of all these concessions by MLB.”

This is a legitimate gripe, and it underscores the biggest problem in this ballpark mess: what a dismal job Williams and his minions did in preparing the council for this issue and this vote. In their defense, city council members were handed this important financial document on one of the most important expenditures the city will make with little time to study it or have their questions answered. Some had a long list of reasonable questions at the public hearing last week and couldn’t get answers to a lot of them. Each of these city council members should have had the chance for meetings about these questions and concerns, and most of them should have been handled by Williams before the issue reached the council chambers.

And it hasn’t gotten any better. Just yesterday the council got the final version of the agreement governing the construction of the stadium, a document that would seem to be important to look at before anyone could approve the lease and move the ballpark deal forward with confidence.

Now, there are some council members for whom — even if you gave them 10 years and a translation of the lease agreement in Latin — it would not have made a difference. They would have opposed it no matter what and used whatever time you gave them to work against passage. But there are enough votes in play that more preparation could have made it easier for some council members to make this leap based on more than faith.

Early on in this process, one MLB official told me privately to stay focused on the lease — that it was the most important step, and it is often a difficult one. But that was boring. It was more fun to pay attention to what was happening on the field and who would own this franchise.

A lease? Wake me up when it’s over.

Unfortunately for Anthony Williams, council members have no intention of sleepwalking through this issue.

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