Baseball Plays Hardball With D.C.

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Baseball's response to Washington's lawmakers was strong, swift and ominous. Or, as Mayor Anthony A. Williams put it: "The dream of 33 years is now once again close to dying."

On Wednesday, Major League Baseball shut down business and promotional operations indefinitely for the team that has been relocating from Montreal. Baseball essentially gave the city 15 days to change its mind about a new financing plan, or else the search could begin anew for a permanent home for the troubled franchise.

At issue is a measure passed late Tuesday by the District of Columbia Council, which voted to approve the Expos' move to Washington if private financing is used for at least half the cost of building a stadium. Baseball has been adamant that a stadium be funded with 100 percent government money up front, as stipulated in a September agreement negotiated with Williams.

"The legislation is inconsistent with our carefully negotiated agreement and is wholly unacceptable to Major League Baseball," said Bob DuPuy, baseball's chief operating officer.

Season-ticket sales were immediately halted, and the 16,000 fans who have made $300 deposits can ask for a refund. The stadium store, which had sold more than $100,000 in caps and other merchandise over 3½ weeks, was shut indefinitely at the close of business Wednesday. The unveiling of uniforms with the team's new name, the Washington Nationals, was postponed. A hiring freeze was implemented.

Only the baseball side of the operation will continue to function as usual, although the sudden drop in revenue will hamper general manager Jim Bowden's ability to sign players.

"Don't expect us to spend a lot of money at this point," team president Tony Tavares said. "We will continue to try to the make the team competitive, but I don't expect us to be a big buyer."

Washington has until Dec. 31 to work out an arrangement acceptable to baseball. That's when the agreement with the city expires, allowing baseball to reopen the process of selecting a permanent host city. The Council could reconsider its vote in light of baseball's reaction, debating again the issue of how much tax money should not be used to fund a sports facility in a city in dire need of better schools and other public services.

Whatever the possible compromises, the days are running short.

"We'll use them all, every minute of every hour of every day, and all of us move to the middle," Williams' spokesman Chris Bender said. "It's ninth inning, second out, we have to make it happen."

DuPuy did not address where the team would play its 2005 home schedule if the deal with Washington falls through.

The developments were stunning to fans who have been waiting for baseball since the Washington Senators move to Texas following the 1971 season.

"It's like you're in a 100-yard dash, and you're one yard away from the finish line," said Charlie Brotman, longtime Senators public address announcer and a prominent advocate for baseball's return. "You're beating everybody, and all of a sudden you've got a cramp, and you lose."

Council Chair Linda W. Cropp proposed the private financing amendment, which was approved 10-3 after she threatened to withhold support from the overall package, which then passed in a 7-6 vote.

"I am not trying to kill the deal," Cropp said. "I'm putting some teeth in it because I'm really disappointed with what I got from Major League Baseball."

The September agreement estimated the cost of building the ballpark and refurbishing RFK Stadium at $435 million, but critics claimed it would cost far more. The proposal, as initially approved by the council on Nov. 30, called for Washington to issue up to $531 million in bonds to cover the cost.

"We had a deal. I believe the deal was broken, and the dream of 33 years is now once again close to dying," Williams said.

Meanwhile, some of the communities that had lost out in the bidding for the team prepared to revive their efforts.

"If the opportunity arises for the Expos again, we are going to be standing there along with everyone else," said Will Somerindyke Jr., head of a Norfolk, Va., baseball group.
  • Christine Lagorio

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