Contention over D.C. stadium builds

Political wrangling, rising cost estimates may derail plans for a new Nationals park

December 23, 2005|By BILL ORDINE | BILL ORDINE,SUN REPORTER

As contention builds, new D.C. stadium deal in danger Baseball's return to Washington was born in turmoil, and now - even after a giddy inaugural season - the wrangling just won't go away.

America's simple game has been bedeviled by a host of complications in the nation's capital.

There is debate over who pays for how much of a new stadium. The D.C. Council has engaged in political infighting, highlighted by Council member Marion Barry's trying to broker his own stadium agreement. The specter of a coming mayoral election hangs over the process. Meanwhile, the club retains its orphan status with no new owner chosen yet, and a deadline looms for approving a lease agreement.

The contentious issue of financing a new baseball park - and particularly who would pay for cost overruns - for the Nationals has the city perilously close to defaulting on a stadium agreement that it signed with Major League Baseball a year ago.

Under terms of that deal, the city is required to approve a lease agreement for the new stadium by Dec. 31. If it fails to do so, the matter could wind up in binding arbitration, where District taxpayers could find a slew of costs simply handed to them by an arbitration panel.

The D.C. Council has balked at approving the lease arrangement, and Barry said his efforts to forge an alternative plan were stymied when Mayor Anthony A. Williams' office interfered. The mayor's office said it was trying to make sure MLB was aware of and OK with Barry's plan when it told baseball about the proposal.

"A lot of us knew from the beginning this was going to be a big bill [for the District] if we voted on it the way we did," said councilman Adrian Fenty, who opposes public financing of the stadium and is a mayoral candidate.

Last year, when the council approved issuing bonds to finance a stadium as part of a deal with MLB to land the former Montreal Expos, Fenty and others wanted to cap the cost at $535 million, which was the projection at the time. It was also the amount of bonds the city pledged to issue.

But efforts to cap the city's liability failed and now estimates for a new stadium, planned along the Anacostia River waterfront, along with attendant infrastructure have risen to at least $667 million.

And the original agreement obligates the city to issue bonds "sufficient [taking into account financing costs, interest costs and earnings during construction and available cash on hand] to generate net proceeds that will fully fund the Baseball Stadium Budget."

"I don't know what the six of us could have done," Fenty said of those on the council who opposed the deal.

For its part, Major League Baseball, which is the club's steward until a new owner is chosen, has indicated it will play hardball - including potentially taking off the table about $20 million in financial concessions - if the lease agreement isn't approved on time.

"In arbitration, all prior concessions by MLB would be revisited," MLB president Bob DuPuy said in a Dec. 19 letter to Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp. "We will all be very disappointed if we do not reach a result that serves the interests of our fans and the Washington, D.C., community."

The battle over stadium costs is one more twist for a franchise that, despite being embraced by fans (nearly 2.7 million attended games at decrepit RFK Stadium last season), remains an orphan.

When it was announced in September 2004 that Washington was getting the former Expos - muscling out competitors Las Vegas, Portland, Ore., and Northern Virginia - there were smiling politicians sporting red baseball caps, members of the old Washington Senators in attendance and a spirited rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" led by longtime Senators public address announcer Charlie Brotman.

But trouble was brewing at the outset. Orioles owner Peter Angelos needed to be satisfied that his franchise would not be crippled by the presence of a nearby franchise. The result of an agreement between Angelos and MLB was a new regional sports network, majority owned by the Orioles, that will have the authority to telecast both teams' games.

On the field, the Nationals fared better than most baseball watchers figured. After losing 95 games as the final version of the Expos in 2004, the Nationals had a surprisingly strong summer and were in the hunt for wild-card playoff spot before running out of gas and finishing 81-81.

Managed by Hall of Famer Frank Robinson and sporting red and white, the Nationals were a team that thrived more on solid pitching than explosive hitting with ace starter Livan Hernandez posting a 15-10 record and closer Chad Cordero notching 47 saves with a 1.82 ERA At the plate, outfielder Jose Guillen hit .283 with 24 home runs.

But in the offseason, the team has lost two solid members of its pitching staff, Hector Carrasco and Esteban Loaiza, to free agency. And attracting free agents to a team with so much ownership uncertainty has been difficult.

The team, owned by baseball's 29 owners, is on the market for $450 million, and though there has been no shortage of suitors, MLB won't pick an owner until the stadium deal is finalized.

That's the deal that's supposed to be done by Dec. 31, and the council's next scheduled meeting isn't until Jan. 4.

The mayor's communications director, Vince Morris, said Major League Baseball has not said whether it would extend the deadline.

When the baseball stadium agreement was passed last year, it was by a 7-6 margin. Since then, three members who voted in favor have been replaced. And although the new council is less apt to embrace the spirit of the season to buy now and pay later, the final call - as it happens on the field of play - could be in the hands of an arbiter.

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

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