Thursday, December 16, 2004

Jack Kent Cooke couldn’t get a stadium built in Washington, even when he was willing to pay for it himself. Why should things be any easier for Major League Baseball? Has the Dominion of Confusion — otherwise known as D.C. — really changed that much in the last eight years?

Clearly not. What was originally thought to be a done deal with Bud Selig and his fellow robber barons has unraveled like that baseball Roy Hobbs hit in “The Natural.” D.C. Council chairman Linda Cropp, who most folks wouldn’t know from a riding crop, has struck again, shepherding through a last-minute financing amendment that threatens to turn the Washington Nationals into the Las Vegas … Whatevers. (I’m betting they build a stadium on the Strip and call the team the Strippers.)

Linda, you don’t know who you’re messin’ with. These are the guys who thought it would be a good idea for the Expos to play some home games in San Juan. These are the guys who let the Montreal franchise wither away, treated it like a junior member of the National League, while they took their sweet time shopping around for the club’s next home. These are the guys who — whoops! — allowed their All-Star Game to end in a tie and their players to bulk up to the size of the Incredibles before they started testing for steroids.

These are the guys you’re messin’ with, lady — guys who could match the District stumble for stumble, bumble for bumble. If you try to reopen stadium negotiations, try to lighten your constituents’ financial load, these guys won’t sit calmly, look at the balance sheet and say, “Well, yeah, I guess we did kind of stick it to you a bit. Maybe the new owners, whoever they will be, could bear a little bit of the burden, cover some of the cost overruns or something.”

You see, Linda, these guys didn’t get their reputation by being smart. They got their reputation by being stupid — by letting the Expos go to rack and ruin, for instance. And if you push them far enough, they’ll undoubtedly do something else stupid, like pulling the team out of Washington and putting it somewhere else.

That’s what’s so scary about negotiating with the MLB, why Mayor Anthony Williams gave away everything but his first-born male child to land the Nationals. He knew if he didn’t, some other city would — and that baseball, being stupid, would take the better deal, even if it meant moving the club to a smaller, less lucrative market.

Tampa Bay has been a disaster, the Florida Marlins can’t draw seagulls — even after winning two World Series — but that doesn’t mean baseball wouldn’t be ready, willing and able to make the same mistake thrice.

The problem with Washington as a baseball town isn’t that it has lost two teams in the past — the original Senators in ‘61 and the expansion Senators 11 years later. No, the problem with Washington is that it makes perfect sense, that the Expos would have a better chance to succeed here than they would anywhere else. There are more people here, there’s more money, there’s more everything.

Unfortunately, the words “baseball” and “perfect sense” rarely appear in the same sentence. Indeed, Selig seems to cultivate this crazy-uncle image the game has. When you play Actual Regular Season Games in Puerto Rico — Puerto Rico! — well, there’s a message there, and the message is: These are owners who are capable of anything.

So that’s what you’re dealing with here, Linda. You’ve got a commissioner who’s kookier than Kramer at times, and you’ve got a city, the seventh-largest market in the U.S., that has been without baseball for more than 30 years. Guess who’s going to blink first?

You can turn it into a moral issue all you want. You can decry the crumbling state of this and the appalling condition of that — there’s plenty about D.C. that’s crumbling and appalling, starting with the schools — but don’t expect any sympathy, or much in the way of give-backs, from baseball. Baseball ain’t no United Way commercial. In George Steinbrenner’s world, it’s every magnate for himself.

Hope this sheds some light on the situation for you, Linda — assuming, that is, you weren’t just trying to make political hay by taking a Valiant Stand against Bud Selig and his “Ocean’s Twelve” brigade of burglars. If the latter is the case, though, allow me to disabuse you of one notion: You’re not going to come out of this looking like Julia Roberts.

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