If you’d had to pick a likely endgame for the Expos-to-D.C. soap opera, this surely wasn’t it. On Wednesday afternoon, mere hours after the D.C. City Council had finally approved the $531 million stadium finance bill he’d been seeking for the last three months, Mayor Anthony Williams was moaning to the press, “I believe the deal is broken. The dream is now close to dying. We’re in great jeopardy here, and I think I’m being optimistic.”
What exactly transpired late Tuesday night, after 13 hours in the D.C. council chambers, wasn’t immediately apparent even to the politicos who’d brokered the deal in the first place (as of Thursday afternoon, the final bill language hadn’t even been officially submitted to the council secretary). What was clear was that Linda Cropp, the council chair who’d spent the last month griping about the rising cost of the stadium while still insisting that she was in favor of it, finally put her foot down: The only way she’d vote for the bill was if it included an amendment stating that half of the $280 million stadium construction cost (not counting land and infrastructure) would be covered by “private financing.”
With Cropp’s vote needed to pass the bill, the private-financing amendment quickly passed, 10-3; minutes later, Cropp joined with six colleagues in approving the full bill, 7-6. And the wailing and moaning began.
Washington Post columnist Tom Boswell charged Cropp with “[blowing] to smithereens the deal that MLB thought it had in place with Washington” and “demolishing the most basic pillar on which the District’s agreement with baseball was built.” The Washington Times‘ Tom Knott declared the council chair “the Grinch who stole baseball,” asking, “does the W in your middle initial stand for Weasel?” And headlines coast to coast declared: “Expos Move On Verge Of Collapse.”
By Wednesday afternoon, MLB had marshaled its forces to mount a counterattack. “The legislation,” wrote MLB sub-honcho Bob DuPuy, “is inconsistent with our carefully negotiated agreement and is wholly unacceptable to Major League Baseball.” Since the agreement sets a December 31 deadline for a stadium deal, he added, “we will not entertain offers for permanent relocation of the club until that deadline passes,” implying that once the year 2005 dawns, it’s open season again on bidding for the skeletonized remains of the Expos.
The irony is that of all the measures that Cropp could have demanded in exchange for her vote–a cap on cost overruns, say, or limits on the penalties D.C. would pay if the stadium isn’t finished on time–the one she insisted upon is probably the least meaningful in terms of reducing the cost to D.C. If you read my article from last month, you’ll recall that Cropp had earlier proposed a “private financing” scheme that relied on using a controversial tax shelter to shift some costs to the federal government, while still using D.C. funds to pay off the private developer’s stadium debt.
The key concept to understand here is the difference between “financing” and “funding.” If I buy a house by taking out a mortgage, I’ve gotten bank financing, but the bank isn’t funding my purchase–I’m doing that with my mortgage payments. Likewise, the important thing for a stadium project isn’t who’s providing the up-front cash, but rather who’s paying off the resulting debt. If that $140 million is still being paid out of public tax revenues, it’s a public cost, whether it’s funneled through a private developer or not. (Likewise, it’s a bit disingenuous for some stadium opponents to be claiming that 100% of the stadium cost would be paid by D.C. taxpayers; the Nationals owners would be providing about 18% of the funding via annual rent payments.)
No matter. Cropp had transgressed the sacred “contract” signed by Mayor Williams and Supreme Leader Selig–called a “Baseball Agreement” on its cover page, because the mayor doesn’t actually have the power to unilaterally sign contracts on behalf of his city–and if there’s one thing the Selig administration knows how to do, it’s play hardball in contract negotiations. Thus DuPuy’s crabby response, which was meant to throw fear into the hearts of Washington baseball fans, who presumably are expected to bombard Cropp’s office with angry phone calls demanding that she end their 33 years in the baseball wilderness, whatever the cost.
The angry phone calls materialized right on cue (reports are that Cropp has received at least two death threats), but don’t hold your breath waiting for the Expos to relocate again for the second time in three months. Oh, it’s possible that DuPuy’s bluster will escalate into pretending to play footsie with other cities. As the Florida Marlins ownership can tell you, the mayor of Las Vegas is happy to perform that role, so long as it gets his picture in the paper with some showgirls. But in the end, the other options are pretty crummy. The bridges are burned in Montreal, political support for stadium funding is nonexistent in Virginia, and places like Portland and Las Vegas have neither the population nor the stadium financing to pull off a last-minute play for the Expos. It’s D.C. or bust, and Selig has to know that even a $400 million stadium bill is still better than nothing.
What will be interesting to see, then, is what happens if Cropp calls MLB’s bluff and tells them to take her deal or leave it. The Seligians will be left with its erstwhile golden egg in limbo–poor Tony Tavares must be watching a lot of “Cold Pizza” in his D.C. hotel room about now–and no new owner to stick with Jim Bowden’s collection of overpriced infielders. Surely even Bud Selig would have to see the wisdom of swallowing hard and cutting a deal, when faced with the alternative of opening the season with a lame-duck team and losing any goodwill they could have had by yanking away fans’ hopes just as they got excited about baseball?
Of course, that’s just what they’ve done the last three years in Montreal. It’s probably a bad idea to ever underestimate baseball’s capacity for shooting itself in the foot.
Neil deMause is co-author of the book Field of Schemes, and runs the fieldofschemes.com Web site. He lives in Brooklyn with his partner Mindy, their son Jordan, and a circa-1986 Yankee Stadium bleacher seat. Neil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.