WASHINGTON - Given a second chance, the return of Major League Baseball to the nation's capital became a virtual certainty yesterday after the District of Columbia Council passed a stadium financing bill without a provision that had threatened to kill the move a week earlier.
By a vote of 7-6, with Chairman Linda W. Cropp siding with the majority, the council approved building a 41,000-seat stadium near the Anacostia River in southeast Washington.
"I'm proud to say finally and at last we have risen above the fray, and the Washington Nationals are rounding third and heading for home," Mayor Anthony A. Williams said at a news conference last night.
Last week, the council approved a stadium bill, but with an amendment - added by Cropp after more than 10 hours of debate - that required at least 50 percent private financing. If private financing were not found, the deal would be off.
Major League Baseball responded by calling the amendment "wholly unacceptable," shutting down the Nationals' business operations and offering refunds to anyone who sent in a $300 deposit for season tickets.
Yesterday, after the council voted to reconsider the passed bill, Cropp offered a new amendment that removed that language from the bill and satisfied baseball.
The district will continue to search for private financing to pay for at least half of the project. 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.
In addition, Cropp won two other concessions from Major League Baseball from the original deal, which was signed by Williams in September.
The district and baseball will now split the cost for insurance limiting the city's liability on cost overruns and completion delays. Originally, that expense was to be borne by the district.
In addition, baseball waived its right to compensatory damages if the ballpark is not ready for the 2008 season. Instead, the Nationals - formerly the Montreal Expos - would not have to pay rent for RFK Stadium for that season. The team's rent for the first three seasons at RFK is $5.3 million a year. If the ballpark isn't ready for the 2009 season, the district would be liable for $19 million in damages.
Cropp and Major League Baseball agreed to the changes in negotiations that ended late Monday night.
Cropp said she agreed to drop the requirement for private financing because she is confident several offers will be found and certified by the D.C. chief financial officer.
Two such proposals are close to being vetted, she said, but she hopes the mayor doesn't have to submit them. "There are more out there that I think are more intriguing," Cropp said.
In a statement, baseball commissioner Bud Selig said he was pleased the council "approved legislation consistent with the terms of our original agreement.
"The sunset amendment to the original legislation initiated last week was a critical issue, because it changed the transaction and did not commit the government to the financing agreed to in the stadium agreement. With the city once again assuring financing as well as continuing to agree to split the costs with MLB on damages incurred by moving into a new stadium after the target date, we can now focus our attention on bringing baseball back to Washington this coming season."
Baseball's owners had conditionally approved the move to Washington, pending passage of the financing bill.
MLB has started the process of selling the Nationals, and hopes to get more than $300 million for the club, which it bought for $120 million in early 2002.
Baseball also must return to negotiations with Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos over how his club would be financially protected from the effects of sharing the market. Talks, which started nearly three months ago, have been on hold recently while baseball dealt with Cropp and with the steroid issue.
Angelos declined to comment yesterday. Bob DuPuy, baseball's president and its point man in the talks with the Orioles, did not return phone calls.
In Washington, the Nationals team merchandise store was to reopen at 8 a.m. today. The team also will be accepting deposits for season tickets again this morning. Their first home game is scheduled for April 14.
In the council chambers yesterday, even the most strident opponents of the stadium had kind words for Cropp.
Councilman Adrian Fenty, who voted no, said the original deal negotiated by the mayor was "over the cliff."
"Madame Chairwoman, you have started to bring this back to the cliff, and with what was negotiated by the mayor's office, I'm not sure you could have done any better," Fenty said.
Carol Schwartz, the only Republican on the council and another dissenter, praised Cropp, then criticized the mayor and his negotiating team.