King Kaufman's Sports Daily

D.C. to baseball: Not so fast! A city actually stands up to MLB, and MLB doesn't like it, not one bit. But baseball will profit handsomely anyway.


Salon Staff
December 17, 2004 1:00AM (UTC)

Sorry, Portland. Sorry, Vegas and Northern Virginia. Sorry Monterrey and San Juan. It was looking for a while like you were out of the woods, like for the time being you'd survived being pressured to hand over hundreds of millions of dollars in welfare to some as-yet-unnamed billionaires.

A sucker city had been found in the nation's capital, and the people of that burg, not exactly voluntarily, were going to use their tax money to build a corporate headquarters for the/les/los Montreal/San Juan/Washington National Where Nextpos.

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But the D.C. Council, which held approval rights over the deal Mayor Anthony Williams struck with Major League Baseball, didn't roll over, or at least changed its mind in mid-roll.

And they say there's never any good news.

On Tuesday night Council chairman Linda Cropp crafted an amendment to a spending bill that would require the city to get private financing to pay for half of the Nationals' new stadium. The amendment passed 10-3, the bill itself was approved 7-6, and baseball -- which owns the Nationals -- had a conniption.

Two months ago the Council approved $531 million in public bonds to finance the new stadium and related costs, such as land acquisition and transit upgrades, plus an upgrade to RFK Stadium, which would be the Nationals' home while the new yard was being built. Based on that approval, baseball, which has long stated that a 100 percent taxpayer-financed stadium is a requirement for any city that wanted the Where Nextpos, agreed to move the team to Washington.

"The legislation approved by the District of Columbia City Council last night does not reflect the agreement we signed and relied upon after being invited by District leaders to consider Washington as a home for Major League Baseball," Bob DuPuy, Major League Baseball's CEO, said in a statement dripping with venom Wednesday night. "The legislation is inconsistent with our carefully negotiated agreement and is wholly unacceptable to Major League Baseball."

DuPuy angrily announced that the Nationals' business and promotional operations would cease until or unless the original deal were restored before the Dec. 31 deadline. A press conference meant to unveil the team's new uniforms Wednesday was scotched.

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Baseball insists on taxpayer financing for a couple of reasons. First, the owners of the other 29 teams bought the Expos from Jeffrey Loria for $120 million three years ago and have spent between $145 million and $174 million to run the team since, according to DuPuy.

Baseball wants to find a buyer for the team, of course, and would make a handsome profit if it could sell the club and a brand new stadium it didn't have to pay a dime to build. Not much profit in selling just the team, which it's been estimated would go in the $300 million range.

More important for the long term, baseball doesn't like it when stadiums are built with private money because that makes it harder to twist government arms to use taxpayer dollars to build them. The other owners are still mad at the Giants for building their own stadium in San Francisco in the late '90s.

The tide seems to finally be turning against baseball in the "give us a stadium or you won't have a team in your town" scam. Even the Cardinals couldn't get the city that loves them dearly to build them a home outright. But you can't blame rich mendicants for wanting to keep their hands out. When it pays, begging's easy work.

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The D.C. Council's private financing requirement only applies to construction of the stadium itself, Cropp says, and that's been estimated at $280 million. Since stadium cost overruns average about 20 percent, you can think of that as $336 million, assuming a project in Washington has a chance to only be average in terms of cost overruns.

But Cropp says $140 million is all that's needed, and expressed confidence Wednesday that that amount can be raised. Even the mayor's office says there's a proposal from a parking company that could bring in $100 million.

Cropp is pretty clearly grandstanding here, suddenly standing up to baseball when the headlines are a lot taller than they would have been before a deal was struck and the happy announcement of a new team for the nation's capital was made.

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But politicians grandstand all the time. Just last week Sen. John McCain once again puffed out his chest and threatened to do something about the national security threat of baseball players shooting steroids into their asses, while continuing the long congressional tradition of ignoring baseball's ridiculous antitrust exemption, something that actually calls for legislative remedy.

So why not for a change have such peacock strutting actually benefit the people? Whatever Cropp's motives -- perhaps she has her eye on Williams' gig -- she's doing the right thing.

Last month Washington voters booted out three council members who were in favor of a taxpayer-financed stadium deal and voted in three candidates who opposed it, including former Mayor Marion Barry. As usual the people, who have to actually pay the freight on ballpark boondoggles, were squarely against the deal struck by the politicians, who get credit for securing the sparkling new toys and are long gone by the time the bills come due.

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So what happens now? Well, it's not all good news, of course.

Baseball has little choice but to have the Nationals play at RFK this season, which is, to all intents and purposes, upon us. If Vegas, Northern Virginia or any of the other defeated candidates sees this week's news as an opening and makes a desperate push to land the team, baseball will surely listen. A lame-duck year or two in Washington would be OK if there were a gleaming $400 million stadium with a preposterously sweet lease waiting at the other end.

But we can't forget about contraction. Weirdly underdiscussed when the last collective bargaining agreement was reached in 2002 was the fact that the players union gave up the right to contest if baseball decided to eliminate two teams in 2006.

DuPuy wasn't just cutting off his nose to spite his face when he suspended promotional operations for the Nationals, who had already sold a reported 18,000 season tickets and $100,000 worth of merchandise in just a few weeks. DuPuy said refunds would be offered to ticket-buyers. If a sweetheart deal can't be reached elsewhere, it would make the contraction argument a lot stronger to have the Nationals spend the next two years playing at RFK in front of Montreal-esque crowds in the mid-four figures.

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That argument would still have to be made because the players aren't the only party that can contest contraction: Commissioner Bud Selig's attempt to contract the Twins and Expos three years ago was killed when the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, the Twins' landlord, was granted an injunction forcing the team to honor its lease.

In the long run, the 29 owners would probably make more money from contraction than they would from selling the Where Nextpos. The other contracted owner could cash out on what would likely be friendly teams. The remaining 28 would save money on revenue sharing to those two weak teams, and would divide those teams' share of revenues from broadcast contracts, merchandising, etc.

It's also been suggested that contraction would lower salaries by eliminating 80 roster spots, but I don't think so. The 80 guys losing their jobs would be marginal, minimum-salary types, and the exit of two weak-sister franchises wouldn't affect the bidding wars for people like Carl Pavano and Pedro Martinez. The Where Nextpos weren't in those sweepstakes.

Still, I don't think it would take terribly long in the scheme of things for the savings to exceed the perhaps $55 million profit the owners stand to make by selling the team.

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If I thought Major League Baseball were capable of devilishly brilliant strategic moves, I'd suspect that the late monkey wrench thrown into the D.C. deal had been devised by Selig and company. Instead I think it's going to work out for them one way or another as a sort of happy accident.

It's a grand old game.

Previous column: NBA playoffs nearly set

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