Return of D.C. baseball in jeopardy


WASHINGTON - A defiant D.C. Council approved a half-billion-dollar stadium-funding plan last night but added a risky provision that some members said could "kill the deal" by causing Major League Baseball to look elsewhere to put a team.

The funding package was approved by a 7-6 vote.

But, in a surprise move, the council voted to attach a provision requiring that the city obtain at least 50 percent private financing to build the stadium. The 50 percent would apply to stadium construction but not to related costs such as land acquisition for the proposed 21-acre Anacostia River site.

The amendment was introduced after nearly 12 hours of debate by Council Chairwoman Linda Cropp, who said she still hoped baseball will move the former Montreal Expos to Washington.

Cropp said: "I do not want to stop baseball, but this has to be something within reason."

But the amendment could be enough to frighten away baseball because there no longer is any guarantee that a stadium will be constructed.

"Major League Baseball tomorrow morning will have to make a decision on how they want to proceed or go to some other place," said council member Jack Evans, a proponent of bringing baseball to Washington.

Evans said about the amendment: "I hadn't seen it before. We'll just have to see the reaction tomorrow. We did pass the bill. You'll just have to see how baseball reacts."

Evans also said: "The deal's still alive. We have to the end of the year."

Under the amendment that the council endorsed, the city must locate and approve a private financing option by June or the stadium bill will expire.

The package Cropp questioned included $534 million in public funding for a new, 41,000-seat stadium near the Anacostia, as well as for the modernization of RFK Stadium, which would be the team's home while the new stadium is built. The deal was signed by Mayor Anthony Williams on Sept. 29.

Last night, Williams left 20 minutes before the vote without comment.

"I cannot in good conscience vote for this bill with all of the public dollars there," Cropp said. "I did not see the type and level of movement [from baseball] that I had hoped for and anticipated."

Her amendment was approved on a 10-3 vote. "I do not want to stop baseball, [but] it has to be something within reason that makes sense for each and every one of us," Cropp said.

In effect, the amendment will test baseball's commitment to the nation's capital. The Expos - recently renamed the Washington Nationals - have already sold more than 10,000 season tickets. The team was to unveil its red, white and blue uniforms today.

Baseball will study last night's developments before reacting publicly.

"We will review the amendments and the legislation as passed and have a response [today]," Bob DuPuy, baseball's chief operating officer, told the Associated Press.

If the law stands, baseball could play this season at RFK and continue to work with the council while also exploring options in other regions, including Northern Virginia, that want the team.

John McHale, a baseball executive vice president who helped negotiate the original deal, could not be reached for comment after the vote late last night.

Council member Harold Brazil said he wondered why Cropp waited so long to introduce an amendment that could be a deal-breaker.

"If you wanted to kill the deal, why didn't you do that this morning?" Brazil said. "Why would you kill the deal that we had fought so hard to get - I mean, for 30 years."

Washington hasn't had a major league team since the Senators left for Texas in 1971.

The council gave preliminary approval to the funding package on a 6-4 vote on Sept. 29. Cropp and two other members abstained to send a message to baseball that final approval was not secured without concessions.

On the eve of yesterday's vote, baseball sent the city a letter addressing specific council concerns.

But Cropp and other members said the concessions failed to address the central issue: The District is still left with most of the tab.

"I really believe that we're going to get private financing," Cropp said. "What I'm doing is, I'm putting teeth in that private financing piece."

Cropp emphasized that the baseball deal was not dead and that "we still would have the opportunity to reconsider if baseball comes up with something different."

The agreement with baseball gives the city until Dec. 31 to lock in financing.

The meeting began with dueling chants of "Vote no!" and "Vote yes!" from spectators in the packed hearing room. Brazil clapped his hands and mimed swinging a bat. Cropp said the room would be evacuated if the chants continued. Later, a spectator yelled an obscenity at Evans before voluntarily leaving the chamber.

The mayor, who has tried for months to rally support for the stadium deal, watched portions of the meeting from a seat facing the members.

Several council members said the District should have negotiated a better deal. The current plan calls for the stadium to be funded largely through a gross receipts tax on large businesses and a tax on stadium concessions.

"Somebody is going to have a very nice Christmas gift," said council member Adrian Fenty, who argued against the mayor's funding package. "We are giving Major League Baseball a $584 million gift."

"We need to say the deal is off and then come back to the table," said Jim Graham, another member.

Agreeing with Graham was attorney Mary Williams, a spectator at the meeting who said she lives across the street from the stadium site and serves on a neighborhood commission advising the council. "I love baseball. But we would like Major League Baseball to pay an equitable portion."

But Brazil said: "If you want to get baseball, this is what you've got to do."

In addition to adding the private financing mandate, the council approved a series of other changes. One measure significantly reduces the stadium tax burden on large businesses. Another change approved yesterday calls for the District to look for a new stadium site if costs at the Anacostia site rise above $584 million.

Jeff Seidel contributed to this article.

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