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Last year at this time, Bud Selig and Bob DuPuy were popping open the
bubbly. It had been a long haul, but the Expos Stadium Extortion Across
America Tour (™ Doug Pappas) had finally landed its prize: Approval by
the D.C. city council of a brand-spanking-new stadium on the Anacostia
River waterfront, to be paid for almost entirely with public funds. Sure,
some i’s needed to be dotted and t’s crossed–things like paying
off Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos
for parking a new team on
his doorstep–but the four-year-long Expos soap opera was finally over.

As it turned out, not so much. So far this month:

  • The D.C. council, in a tizzy over growing stadium cost overruns, refused
    to certify the Nationals’ lease, making it impossible to sell stadium
    bonds by the January 1 deadline.

  • MLB president DuPuy threw a public
    hissy fit
    on the Washington Post op-ed page, charging that “the D.C.
    Council is trying to walk away from the agreement that brought the team
    here” and that Washington should be grateful even to be invited to joing
    the baseball fraternity, what with “city leaders [who] frequently quibble
    with baseball about its commitments, and often quarrel with each other.”

  • MLB announced that it would file a request for immediate mediation of
    the dispute, as provided in the original stadium agreement, and if that
    fails to resolve things, to proceed to binding arbitration.

  • Last Tuesday, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams declared that “I would hope as
    early as late this week” to have council approval of a stadium lease–only to have chief council stadium booster Jack Evans declare the next day
    that “there are not even any discussions about it taking place around
    here,” and the Washington Times assess the stadium’s outlook as “nearly dead.”

So what exactly is going on here, and what does it mean for the future of
the Nationals? I’ll attempt to answer the big questions in the form of
answering questions, as posed by a hypothetical composite reader. (There,
I’ve told you up front. So please don’t take away my
Pulitzer
.)

Why all this fuss now about cost overruns? I thought the stadium bill
that passed last year capped city spending at $535 million.

Not quite. When council chair Linda Cropp agreed to end her holdout
against the stadium deal in December 2004, she extracted one last-minute
concession from MLB: The amount of bonds to be sold to pay for the stadium
would be capped at $535 million. If the projected cost of the stadium,
plus needed land and infrastructure, was more than $50 million over that
mark, the bill would be voided, and the stadium issue kicked back to the
council to seek cheaper options.

(Yes, that makes it really a $585 million cap. If your head is spinning
now, hold onto your cranium, because the math only gets funnier from
here.)

In February, D.C.’s chief financial officer, Natwar Gandhi, officially
certified that the stadium cost would come in under the cap–but barely,
as $46 million in additional land costs brought the total to within $4
million of the cutoff point. Then, in the fall, as the council prepared to
approve the final stadium lease, the other shoe dropped: The final bill
would actually be $667 million, thanks mostly to increased cost of land
and infrastructure, such as an expanded Metro station that somehow got
left out of the budget entirely. (A D.C. government source admitted to the
Washington Post that the mayor’s office had intentionally lowballed
contingency costs, to make the deal more palatable to the council.) And
soaring costs in the post-Katrina construction industry could drive it
still higher.

At that point, support on the council–now facing three additional
anti-stadium legislators who weren’t around for the original 2004 vote–collapsed. Mayor Williams pulled the lease from the council’s agenda for
“minor technical changes,” and never put it back on.

So who’s supposed to pay all these extra costs? Surely all this was
resolved back in the original deal to bring the Nats to D.C., right?

It was, except the original deal was to have the city pay for all cost
overruns, which is what Cropp and her fellow councilmembers balked at. Now
that the budget is busticated, both sides are refusing to make up the
difference. (MLB did agree to chip in another $20 million, but only in
exchange for a larger share of non-game-day parking revenues–and even
that may be off the table once things hit arbitration.)

Instead, stadium boosters have been frantically looking for a guy
behind the tree
, suggesting that the additional costs would be paid
for by anything from federal government subsidies to private developer
contributions to something called “value engineering,” which seems to be
developer-speak for we’ll find something to
skimp on
. But so far no third-party cavalry has ridden to the rescue,
so the standoff continues.

If they’re going to binding arbitration, can’t an arbitrator settle
this mess?

Depends who you ask. MLB insists that D.C. signed a binding contract, and
so an arbitrator can force a settlement. But the Baseball Agreement is
between MLB and the mayor; the councilmembers are the ones who are holding
up the deal, and they’re not signatories to the Baseball Agreement. No one
seems sure just what an arbitrator can and can’t do, but the best guess is
they could order D.C. to pay damages to MLB, but not actually force the
council to approve the lease–or build a stadium.

So what happens now? Do the Nationals hit the road again?

Despite all the apocalyptic talk of the last week, talks are still
ongoing, and a settlement is still possible. Cropp issued a ten-point
list
of demands last week, the most significant of which was the
first: “No more money shall be allocated for baseball other than the $535
million already authorized and all baseball-related income.” That last
clause could provide wiggle room, though, in that a fair bit of
“baseball-related income” (team rent, ticket taxes, etc.) was already
slated to help pay off the $535 million in bonds; if that instead counts
on top of the bonds, D.C.’s tab could rise while Cropp insists that
the cap is unsullied. (Whether this would actually be enough to sell
councilmembers on the deal is unclear: Cropp is already part of the
five-vote minority backing the plan, and swing votes like Kwame Brown and
Carol Schwartz have been adamant about not paying a dime over the original
amount.)

Another thought has been to let MLB take over stadium construction if it
promises to pay for cost overruns, something DuPuy has already offered to
do, saying, “Asking baseball to pay for overruns when D.C. government
officials are in charge of the stadium’s design and construction is like
MasterCard telling you to pay your credit card bill even though MasterCard
gets to do all your shopping.” Unfortunately, most of the “overruns” are
things like subway station expansion and land acquisition, which will
remain regardless of how much is spent to build the actual ballpark.

If, instead, the standoff drags on, you’ll no doubt see Selig and DuPuy
unsheathing their move-threat sabers, hinting that the Nats will relocate
again if the council doesn’t blink first. But if you’ll recall, it’s not
like MLB had a lot of other options when it agreed to move the Expos to
D.C.–the lack of better options is, in fact, the only reason why they
agreed to grant the team before a stadium bill was finalized–and since
then, the best fallback option, Northern Virginia, has let its stadium
authorizing legislation lapse, and would have to be starting from square
one. Moreover, there’s competition now, in the form of the Florida
Marlins, whose owners have been jetting across the nation (stops so far:
San Antonio and Portland) in search of someone to cough up stadium dough,
or at least emit a low throaty grumble that can be sold to legislators
back in Florida as a reason to provide added stadium subsidies.

But let’s see: Two “homeless” teams, two intractable stadium standoffs…
this sounds ripe for the scenario
I discussed last month
where Bud and Bob drop the C-bomb, announcing
in April that the Marlins and Nationals will be short-listed for
contraction if their stadium demands aren’t met. It’d be an incredibly
expensive gambit to follow through on–MLB would have to swallow the $450
million franchise fee it’s counting on getting from a new Washington
owner, for starters.

But this is Bud Selig we’re talking about, the man who had to be stopped
by court order from putting strikebreakers in uniform, and who arm-twisted
the Wisconsin legislature into providing
him a stadium at no cost
. Once a brinkman, always a brinkman.

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