There’s a truly amazing article by Lori Montgomery in today’s Washington Post, recounting the battle of MLB’s stadium dealings with D.C., a tale frought with miscommunication and hubris. Some of the highlights:
Last year, when Williams suggested that the city would be willing to build a ballpark by using two-thirds public funding and one-third of the money coming from the team, The Washington Post reported that Reinsdorf responded: “Two-thirds/one-third is fine. But three-thirds/no-thirds is more of what we had in mind.”…
Convinced they were fighting to keep alive their bid, D.C. officials gave Major League Baseball “the sweetest of sweetheart deals,” in the words of one prominent baseball executive. The team would get a free ballpark, the right to choose its location and nearly all the revenue, including tens of millions of dollars from naming rights.
News of the deal “spread through baseball like wildfire,” said the executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It really was too good,” he said, laying the foundation for a public backlash.
One of the hallmarks of Bud Selig’s reign as baseball commissioner is that he’s a shrewd bargainer but a horrible diplomat. Selig may have miscalculated here, as kicking in even a few tens of millions of dollars – which would amount to a million or two per MLB team – at a key moment could almost certainly have gotten a deal done. For the man who cancelled the World Series and but for the grace of Judge Sonis Sotomayor would have started a season with scab players, though, it’s always nose-to-spite-your-face season.
Baseball officials put Reinsdorf on the phone with Cropp to explain their objections, but he did nothing more to woo her or the council. “We believed the mayor to be the representative of the city council negotiating the deal,” said a high-ranking baseball official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
If this is true, baseball owners are even bigger dimwits than we’ve been giving them credit for. Everybody on the planet knew that MLB, seeing the new stadium-funding-hostile council on the horizon, was rolling the dice by cutting a deal with Mayor Anthony Williams before stadium legislation was passed in the council; hell, it was the council’s refusal to pass a stadium deal before the team was awarded that had held up the award of the team to D.C. for almost two years. If MLB really bought Williams’ promises that he could muster the votes for whatever baseball demanded, no problem, then they truly have only themselves to blame for what transpired.
Then the council came to focus on 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. If baseball were offering to cap lost profits at $19 million, the members said, then $19 million must be exactly what baseball expected to receive all along. Besides, why should there be a late fee of any kind? The city’s paying for the whole stadium.
Item 7 wasn’t a concession, it was an insult, they contended. Cropp agreed and plunged the deal to bring baseball back to the nation’s capital into crisis.
Another place where MLB apparently badly miscalculated. In the face of a $400-million-plus stadium subsidy, a $19 million late fee (no baseball stadium in recent memory has opened more than one season late once construction started) is a mere drop in the bucket. Once it was clear that this was the straw that broke Linda Cropp’s back, MLB officials could have quickly moved to renegotiate that provision – instead, Bob DuPuy drew a line in the sand and ordered Cropp to toe it.
As for what happens now, while there are rumors of a possible meeting between Cropp and MLB, the rhetoric is all still on orange alert: DuPuy reiterated yesterday that “we have no intention of extending the [December 31] deadline. We have a few options, but we’re not even going to look at that until the deadline comes and goes.” The top option, according to ESPN’s Peter Gammons: Pulling the team out of D.C.’s RFK Stadium, and instead moving it to Norfolk’s Harbor Park, a Triple-A facility that would be hard-pressed to meet major-league standards by Opening Day. Of course, this is coming from Peter Gammons, a man who never met an unattributed rumor he didn’t like; it’s also a bit hard to take seriously an article that refers to RFK Stadium as home to the NFL’s Washington Redskins and to the MLB commissioner as “Bug Selig.”