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Council stands up to Selig

Posted: Friday, December 17, 2004

Linda Cropp just became my favorite baseball player. The chair of the Washington, D.C., city council doesn't own a uniform, won't ever set foot inside a batter's box, and probably couldn't break an egg if she had to throw it off a mound.

But make no mistake: She is a player, and by threatening to kill the one-sided deal that would have landed a franchise in her backyard, Cropp let Bud Selig and & Co. know they're not the only ones who know how to play hardball.

Some 10 weeks ago, when Mayor Anthony Williams triumphantly announced a deal to bring major-league baseball back to Washington, most people were too busy celebrating to confront the enormous responsibilities lurking in the details. But that's exactly what Cropp did late Tuesday night, orchestrating a rebellion of the city council to amend the deal and require private money for financing at least 50 percent of the cost of a new stadium.

Cropp's parliamentary coup created a firestorm, and for good reason. In business, a deal is supposed to be a deal, even if it's made with the devils who run baseball. Naturally, they fired back with the usual threats.

''The legislation is inconsistent with our carefully negotiated agreement and is wholly unacceptable,'' said Bob DuPuy, baseball's chief operating officer

Then, just to prove how serious baseball's central office was, season-ticket sales were shut off, and the 16,000 fans who made $300 deposits were told they could ask for a refund. The stadium store, which had sold more than $100,000 in caps and other merchandise over 3 1/2 weeks, was shuttered, too, a hiring freeze was implemented and the unveiling of uniforms with the team's new name, the Washington Nationals, was postponed indefinitely.

Scared yet?

Yeah, well, neither was Cropp.

She knows that if you take all the money lost by those moves and multiply by a hundred, it still wouldn't come close to filling up the hole that D.C. agreed to dig for baseball.

The deal obligates the city to come up with public funding to build a stadium for the new owners as well as refurbish RFK Stadium as the team's temporary home.

The original estimate of $435 million was scoffed at and here's how we know the critics struck a nerve: The proposal that passed the council just two weeks ago called for Washington to issue up to $531 million in bonds to cover the costs. But even that likely won't settle the final tab.

The funny thing is that Cropp's amendment is modest by any measure, including baseball's, especially in a municipality that is struggling to keep its schools open and the buses running. After losing one referendum after another for public funds to build a ballpark for the Giants, owner Peter Magowan put one in San Francisco using private money - to the benefit of his ballclub and the city. In St. Louis, the Cardinals are kicking in better than two-thirds of the construction funds for their a new stadium.

Cropp's amendment didn't go that far. It left the city on the hook for the cost of site-acquisition, infrastructure improvements and the RFK renovations and called on the new owners to pay just half of the actual construction costs - about $140 million.

But baseball reacted with shock and awe and it's easy to understand why. Anybody who buys the team the way the deal is constructed now would have to reach into his wallet for that sum. That means there will be a lot less left to hand baseball's central office when it's time to pay for the team.

Never mind that new stadiums rarely produce the economic windfalls their backers promise. Stanford economist Roger Noll has characterized such efforts as welfare programs for the rich. As he warned in the Washington Post at the time of the original deal, ''It's taxing ordinary people for a stadium attended by upper income people, and then the income generated goes to even higher income people, namely players and owners.''

Baseball has found a handful of municipalities willing to sign on the same dotted line over the last decade. It could still make good on the threat to wait until Dec. 31 for the political winds to shift again in Washington and, if not, start looking for other towns to fleece.

It could do the right thing, of course, and decide to take less money for what remains of the Montreal Expos - a franchise that baseball was ready to fold not so long ago - and let the new owners demonstrate a commitment to Washington by putting some money into the stadium.

Instead, Selig & Co. will sit back and keep threatening to pull their circus out of town, hoping to achieve through intimidation what they could secure just as easily with good will. And they'll probably get exactly what they want by the deadline.

Cropp likely won't be able to hold her coalition together for very long, but she deserves some props just for trying. Like everybody else who plays the game, the lords of baseball should be reminded occasionally what it feels like to get hit with a purpose pitch.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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