Sunday's Washington Post provided a detailed review of each of the 13 D.C. council members' positions on the stadium funding issue. Some members, notably Carol Schwartz and Jim Graham, were previously open to the idea but disliked a provision in the letter from MLB officials, which was supposed to address council members' concerns about the project's financing, but which might actually put D.C. in a money trap. Specifically,
Item 7: If the city failed to build a ballpark for the former Montreal Expos by March 2008, it would have to pay the team as much as $19 million a year to cover lost profits.
From Major League Baseball's perspective, that was a big concession to the city. The stadium agreement places no limit on the city's liability if the ballpark isn't ready by 2008.
To certain council members, however, Item 7 looked like a hoax -- a big, fat thumb in the eye of an unsuspecting city.
A reasonable person might well agree that this provision puts an unfair burden on the city for eventualities that are largely beyond its control, but if you read the entire paragraph in that document, it is clear that the terms are markedly better than before. Nevertheless, Mrs. Cropp did not give any indiation that Item 7 in the letter bothered her in the least until the fateful meeting last Tuesday was well underway; indeed, she had said the letter was very positive. Did she actually read the whole document before making that earlier statement?
A modest proposal
In a letter to D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp, I proposed an unorthodox solution to the problem of cost overruns and delays: Have the city commit to a fixed amount of funding at the low end of the range of cost estimates ($440 million), and build as much of the stadium as can be done until the money runs out. If some of the outfield seating sections or fancy adornments have to left out when the Nationals are supposed to begin play in the new stadium in 2008, don't worry about it! Let private investors into the action, with naming rights for seating sections, or whatever it takes. If the new ballpark looks a little funky for the first couple years, so much the better! That's where unique character comes from. If MLB officials are wise enough accept this awkward compromise, meeting Mrs. Cropp's demand half-way, it would actually accomplish two goals. It would make sure the stadium gets built, with a real incentive on the contractors to stay within budget (since they won't get any money for parts of the stadium that don't get built), and it creates a sort of nostalgic throwback to the days when major league ballparks were built in incremental stages over the years, especially in the 1920s. Indeed, only one stadium built between 1909 and 1923 was not significantly expanded several years after the initial construction: League Park in Cleveland. Some were expanded more than once. See Baseball Stadiums by Class for more.
The race card vs. civic unity
Two columnists in the Post illustrated the ultrasensitive, seldom-mentioned racial undercurrent behind this controversy. Colbert King played the "race card" with unabashed zest, reprinting a viciously racist e-mail message sent to Linda Cropp. Does King mean to imply that such views are typical of stadium backers, or is he just throwing a rhetorical bomb without considering the damage to racial relations it might cause? The way he compares the D.C. Council's belated and Quixotic challenge to MLB to the way Frederick Douglass bravely defied plantation owners suggests the latter. King ridiculed Mayor Williams ("when it comes to the D.C. Council, he can't deliver diddly squat") and the "yahoos" who want the new stadium, while giving heaping praise to Mrs. Cropp. He blithely ignores the essential point: that Mrs. Cropp's last-minute change was a cheap, underhanded bait-and-switch tactic that did grave damage to the city's credibility.
In contrast, Marc Fisher recalled the old days when the Senators served as a bridge between whites and blacks in Washington.
[B]lack Washington repeatedly rose above the racism of baseball's owners to embrace the team as a point of civic pride.
That's the choice Linda Cropp, the D.C. Council chairman who stands between Washington and baseball, faces right now: Ride to higher office on a wave of spite or bring us together. History teaches the right answer.
Call me crazy, call me deluded, but I'm cautiously inclined to think that such uplifting voices of reason and reconciliation as Fisher exemplifies will prevail over the fear and demagoguery expounded by Colbert King in this debate. As for the deal Mayor Williams offered to MLB last June, call it a giveaway, call it extortion, call it whatever you want, but it was almost certainly the only way the other 28 baseball owners would ever override Peter Angelos's objections to putting baseball back where in belongs in Washington. In an imperfect world, sometimes you have to swallow a better pill or two. I know the deal with MLB makes a mockery of the principles of private enterprise, but that wrong will be more than offset, I believe, by the huge amounts of money that are likely to pour into Washington as a result of the new stadium.
Town Hall Meeting
The Washington Baseball Club (a prospective franchise ownership group) wants all area baseball fans to attend a Town Hall Meeting, on Monday at 6pm, featuring Mayor Williams, members of the D.C. City Council, and others. Brand new Web site: www.dropcropp.com. (link via Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo) blog.