D.C. team is ordered to shut down

Major League Baseball reacts to city's call for stadium funding

MLB: District has until Dec. 31 for deal

Baseball In Washington

December 16, 2004|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - On the day Washington's new ballclub was to have unveiled its uniforms, Major League Baseball ordered the team instead yesterday to immediately shut down its business and promotional activities because of a D.C. Council-passed amendment that baseball said violates a commitment the city made to fund a stadium.

The amendment, hastily crafted by council Chairman Linda W. Cropp and approved late Tuesday night, is "wholly unacceptable," Major League Baseball's president and chief operating officer, Bob DuPuy, said in a statement. DuPuy indicated baseball was ready to consider offers to move the team elsewhere - but not until a Dec. 31 deadline for the district to try to lock in an acceptable stadium plan.

Cropp's amendment requires the city to obtain at least 50 percent private funding to build the 41,000-seat stadium near the Anacostia River. The legislation looms as a deal killer because it makes financing uncertain, erasing a previous guarantee that the city would fund the stadium.

The team - the former Montreal Expos - has received deposits on more than 18,000 season tickets for RFK Stadium, where it was to play while the new stadium was built. DuPuy said ticket purchasers may receive refunds, "given the present uncertainty." The team canceled an event yesterday in which a few players were to unveil their red, white and blue uniforms.

RFK was the home of Washington's last team, the Senators, who became the Texas Rangers after the 1971 season.

Cropp made no apologies yesterday, telling reporters she hoped the district could secure the return of baseball after 33 years, but "not at any cost."

"Does this mean the death knell for baseball? I don't think so. Not at all," said the former school board member and high school guidance counselor. She said she expected the team - recently named the Nationals - to play here "for at least a year," but she would rather lose the club than allow the city to be victimized by a "lopsided" deal. "I'm willing to let baseball walk," Cropp said.

The abrupt turn of events left city officials dazed. Members of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, which helped negotiate the deal, had attended the council meeting expecting to soon celebrate approval of the publicly funded stadium plan. They said President Bush would be invited to throw out the first pitch of the April 14 home opener, reviving an old D.C. tradition. "This is it," commission member William N. Hall said before the meeting.

Neither Hall nor Mayor Anthony A. Williams would criticize Cropp yesterday, saying they were hopeful an agreement with baseball might be revived. "I think there are ways to address the issues raised by Ms. Cropp without jeopardizing the deal - from legislative changes, to accelerating private financing options, to further discussions with Major League Baseball," Hall said.

A dejected Williams said at a news briefing, "We've got 15, 16 days to try to keep this alive." But the mayor pronounced the deal "in great, great jeopardy," saying his dream of landing a big league baseball team "is close to dying."

The mayor had left Tuesday night's council meeting surrounded by uniformed officers and declining to answer reporter's questions. He apologized yesterday "for what do they call it in rugby - a `scrum'? I wanted to calm down and settle down before I talked to anyone."

Getting a team has long been a priority for Williams, who has said the franchise and stadium "could mean billions of dollars in new development that will revitalize southeast Washington." A news release issued yesterday included the baseball team on a list of the mayor's top "accomplishments" of the year.

Cropp said she was optimistic that private funding can be found to keep baseball in Washington.

According to the mayor's office, the city's chief financial officer is reviewing a proposal that could bring in more than $100 million from a stadium parking business.

The city is studying other proposals. "Some look at parking, some look at land," the mayor said.

One solution, said a city official pushing for baseball, might be to revise Cropp's legislation to strengthen the "urgency" of soliciting private financing without making it mandatory. "She doesn't need to hold a gun to people's heads because the legislation already required we go out and solicit bids," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But Cropp said yesterday that she believed the city needed a push to get private money. "I'm not certain everyone has the will to make it happen," she said.

Cropp's amendment, approved on a 10-3 vote and attached to a larger, $534 million funding bill, applies only to stadium construction - estimated at about $280 million - and not related costs such as land acquisition or subway upgrades. That means, she said, that the city needs to attract about $140 million in outside money to satisfy her amendment's requirements.

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