Tuesday may be bottom of 9th for baseball in D.C.

Council's recess looms as obstacle to funding


December 17, 2004|By Ed Waldman | Ed Waldman,SUN STAFF

The official deadline for Washington to pass stadium funding legislation that is acceptable to Major League Baseball may be Dec. 31, but in reality, fans will likely know whether there will be baseball in the district next season much sooner. Tuesday to be exact.

With the D.C. Council scheduled to go into recess Thursday, district officials are scurrying to craft a proposal that can be voted on during the council's last scheduled meeting of the year.

Earlier this week, the council approved funding for a new stadium for the recently re-named Washington Nationals, but with an amendment proposed by Chairman Linda W. Cropp that called for private financing for half the construction costs. If that financing isn't found by June, the stadium deal would expire.

Cropp said she would rather lose the club than let the city to be victimized by a "lopsided" deal.

MLB responded Wednesday by calling the amendment "wholly unacceptable," shutting down the Nationals' business operations and offering refunds to anyone who had sent in a $300 deposit for season tickets.

The stadium agreement signed by Mayor Anthony A. Williams and MLB in September called for more than 80 percent of a 41,000-seat stadium on the Anacostia waterfront to be funded with public money. Original estimates put the cost of the stadium at about $440 million, but subsequent studies said the price tag could be as much as $584 million.

Cropp's amendment 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.

The council could reconsider the stadium financing bill if one of the seven members who voted for it Tuesday night - including Cropp - make that request.

"Cropp has said she'd be willing to re-look at this if there's something to look at," her spokesman, Mark Johnson, said yesterday. "If someone comes up with a proposal that's worthy of a second look, she's willing to do it."

Members of Williams' staff spent yesterday working on proposals that would be acceptable to both Cropp and MLB.

"She has basically laid out what it is she wants, which is to get more private financing in this thing," said Chris Bender, a spokesman for Williams. "We need her to strike the `or the act shall expire' bit from the bill. What our hope is that if we can present to her a fleshed-out private financing option, not one that's fully vetted, but one that's a little more fleshed-out than not, or present her the framework for some options, then she may be willing to amend the language. And that might solve the problem."

At a news conference yesterday, Cropp said she wanted baseball to extend its Dec. 31 deadline.

"That would be a move of good faith, I think, on their part to the district citizens," she said.

If that doesn't happen, both Bender and Johnson said the operative deadline for getting something done would be Tuesday.

Though Cropp could call for a meeting during the recess, Johnson questioned how many members would be around.

"Let's face it, the reality of the situation is this is vacation time," he said. "This is an important issue, obviously. I suppose there's a scenario where everybody could be back after the 21st, but I think people are looking realistically at doing something on the 21st if there's anything to be done."

Experts in negotiations said yesterday that, despite the rhetoric, baseball in Washington can be saved.

"They are not at the point of no return," said Ron Shapiro, head of the Baltimore-based Shapiro Negotiations Institute and author of The Power of Nice: How to Negotiate So Everyone Wins - Especially You. "The point of no return in negotiations frequently appears earlier than it actually occurs. When things break down, it always feels like it may be the point of no return.

"It can still be done. ... You can create resolutions which give Major League Baseball the assurances it needs that the stadium will be there and be properly financed," said Shapiro, who served as the agent for Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray. "It can be structured in ways that give the City Council people who are concerned with the draining of resources from real human needs the feeling that they're being taken care of as well."

Robert C. Bordone, deputy director of the Harvard Negotiation Research Project and an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center, agreed.

The harsh tone of Wednesday's statement was meant to send a "robust" signal that there was no way Major League Baseball would agree to what the D.C. Council passed.

"That's entirely different from their willingness to sit down and continue talking," he said.

"I don't think it's dead at all. The question is can the parties come together in a creative way to work it out."

Major League Baseball executive vice president John McHale Jr. said yesterday that baseball was "fully available" for talks.

But, he said, "I think somebody from the other side would have to start that process."

Bender said there was no contact with baseball yesterday.

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