Late-inning rally for D.C.

December 22, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- It used to be said of baseball in the nation's capital, in a twist on the old line about George Washington, that it was first in war, first in peace -- and last in the American League.

Despite the generally hapless record of the old Washington Senators, who fled the city for the second time 33 years ago, and an 11th-hour complication, hopes are high again that a team to be called the Washington Nationals will play here next year, this time in the National League.

City Council Chairwoman Linda W. Cropp, who threatened to cancel the deal Mayor Anthony A. Williams had negotiated with the Major League Baseball owners to move the Montreal Expos to Washington, has now wrung some concessions from the owners and eased off on her threat.

The central issue has been the financing of a new baseball stadium to be built on a site hard by the Anacostia River.

Until the other night, Ms. Cropp was insisting that half the $279 million projected cost come from private financing, and the council had narrowly backed her.

Baseball fans who have been crying for a franchise here for three decades didn't seem to care that the city might be buying into a bad deal when it has infinitely more pressing needs in housing, schools, crimefighting, street repair, etc.

Before Ms. Cropp's threat, their worst enemy was 35 miles up the road in Baltimore, where Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos endlessly railed against bringing another franchise so close to his own Camden Yards park, a lure for many baseball-starved Washingtonians.

But last week they found a home-grown villain in Ms. Cropp, a tough lady with a mind of her own. Now, after a weekend of gloom, certain financing discussions between Mr. Williams and Ms. Cropp have revived it, and the City Council has approved the new financing plan.

Ms. Cropp's stand for a better financial break for Washington has its defenders. They say there is nothing wrong with Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, last home of the Senators, previous home of the hallowed football Redskins and now used for professional soccer, drawing good crowds.

But proponents of the new stadium say RFK is in bad shape and would need such heavy repair that it wouldn't be financially feasible. That hasn't stopped them, however, from planning to refurbish it somewhat for use by the Nationals until the new stadium is completed. The real reason RFK won't do, the new stadium foes suspect, is that it can't be reconfigured with those lucrative skyboxes that would further enrich the owners.

In any event, Washington sports fans have been all upset over the controversy, seeing Ms. Cropp's maneuvers as a lump of coal in their Christmas stocking even as Mr. Angelos probably was lifting a toast or two to her.

All of this uncertainty has added to the anxiety of Washington sports fans, whose hopes for a return to Redskins greatness with the signing this season of their old Super Bowl-winning coach, Joe Gibbs, have been ended, at least for this year. Mr. Gibbs hasn't been able to string two victories together all season, although most of the games lost have been by a touchdown or less.

The only bright light for local fans is the Wizards, the city's pro basketball team, which has gotten off to a surprisingly good start. But it hasn't won a title since it was known as the Bullets, a name that came with the franchise when it was moved from Baltimore years ago but was later dropped because of its association with violence.

With the financing of the new stadium complicating the deal with MLB to move the Expos here, the questions are momentous. Will baseball finally return to the nation's capital after all these years? Will the president of the United States throw out the first ball at RFK next spring? Or will he have to go home to Texas to do the honors for his former personal toy, the Rangers? Stay tuned.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

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