Tuesday, February 7, 2006

This is how ballpark politics works:

In 1988, the Illinois legislature failed to pass the financing for a new ballpark for the Chicago White Sox before a midnight deadline ended the session. So the clock was turned back five minutes, and the White Sox had their money.

In 1995, Cadillac Bud Selig’s plans for a new ballpark for his Milwaukee Brewers seemed dead when he fell short of the necessary votes in the Wisconsin senate to approve the financing. As the gavel was about to be rapped to end the session, one senator who had been lobbied behind closed doors came out and declared he was changing his vote, and Cadillac Bud had his ballpark money.

Last night the D.C. Council spent more than two hours in a closed-door session — in all likelihood violating public meeting laws — before it came out and chairman Linda Cropp declared she did not have the votes needed to pass emergency legislation to put a spending cap on the Washington Nationals’ new Southeast ballpark, and so the lease went down in defeat.

Last rites were delivered for baseball in Washington in the tense council chambers. And then a few hours later, it found the votes needed for a combined bill that includes the spending cap and the lease and Major League Baseball had its fully funded, government financed ballpark.

Ballpark politics — democracy in action.

Now, the council doesn’t know if baseball will buy into its new deal with the cap on ballpark spending. After the initial vote turning down the lease, Bob DuPuy, baseball’s chief operating officer, issued a statement declaring that baseball would have to “explore its options” concerning the future of the relocated Montreal Expos franchise.

We’ll have to see how baseball reacts to the council’s approved deal, but my guess is after some huffing and puffing, baseball will go along, because, given the weakened position it is operating from, it is lucky to get it.

Unless DuPuy is Christopher Columbus, the fact is, that as far as the Nationals are concerned, the world is flat, and it begins and ends in Washington, D.C.

Options? These are baseball’s options:

It can try to move the franchise to another location, none of which would come close to offering any deal that would be better than what baseball and city officials could still eventually agree upon. It can move the team to a place where it would have no chance of getting $450 million for the franchise, nor reap the attendance and merchandising rewards that come with being in one of the richest — and, for baseball, relatively untapped markets — in the country.

It can contract a franchise that the 29 existing major league owners lost money on for three seasons before they finally came to Washington — a franchise that would net these owners a $450 million pie to divide up — and then try to find another team to join in contraction from a place that has real members of Congress.

Arbitration? No one has a clue what that would really mean. Williams called it “a bad place” for the District to be. That may be. It could cost the city a big chunk of change.

Guess what? It’s not a great place for baseball either.

These are the options of someone who has no options.

Ballpark proponents did all they could yesterday to try to convince fellow council members that baseball has options — and dragged out the carcass of Northern Virginia to do it. A foolish comment by the press secretary for newly inaugurated Gov. Tim Kaine suggested that Virginia would be willing to start a dialogue with baseball should the District deal fall apart.

They can get as excited as they want, but here is the deal: Santa Claus, there is no Virginia.

Even if it would be possible to get support for a ballpark again in Virginia, and if everything goes right, the earliest it could open would be 2010. Where would the Nationals play in the meantime? You think after this ugly mess, District officials would let them play in RFK Stadium until then?

And who is going to buy the team? No one will pay $450 million for a franchise that has been so severely damaged locally by these ballpark politics. The fan base will have been poisoned, and who wants to become the most hated owner in the region from the moment he buys the team?

Las Vegas is a mirage. All the talk there has been about casinos building a ballpark, and with stadium fights looming in Minnesota, Oakland and ongoing in Miami, baseball has no interest in any ballparks build with private financing. As far as Portland, Ore., well, there is no there there, and no money.

The money is here in Washington, and last night baseball got a lot of it. So baseball had better take the money while the money is still there, because while it may have been experienced in ballpark politics, it was an amateur when it came to District politics.

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