WASHINGTON - On a side street in Southeast Washington, Louis Woodland was spending time with friends yesterday, wearing a cap that proclaims, "Negro Leagues: 1920-1960." The retired federal worker may love baseball, but he's no fan of the city's proposal to build a stadium in his part of the city.
Woodland, 58, said he is proud D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp was standing up to Major League Baseball by insisting private interests pick up half the tab for building a new ballpark for the former Montreal Expos. City officials estimate that building a 41,000-seat park and modernizing RFK Stadium as a temporary home for the team would cost from $440 million to more than $580 million.
"Right around here, you've got one hospital," Woodland said. "And you're going to spend $500 million on a damn baseball stadium? What if people get sick? They can't go to a baseball stadium. We need more hospitals here, with all the young people killing and shooting each other."
Meanwhile, Tom Flanagan, wearing a crisp new Washington Nationals cap and a Princeton sweat shirt, was dashing through a downtown subway station in a neighborhood that's home to federal agencies, law firms and lobbyists. The 48-year-old, who works for a lobbyist and caters part time, was infuriated by Cropp's late-night effort to derail a deal for bringing the team to Washington until more private funding is found.
"Linda Cropp is a fool," Flanagan said. "You have to spend money to make money. And this makes Washington look like a second-class, laughingstock city. Baseball should just be here. But if it can go wrong, it seems like in this town, it always does. Maybe there is too much money being spent on the stadium. But the proposed stadium site is near one of the largest open-air drug markets in the city, and that would be gone. And the stadium would create jobs."
The views from the two men underscore at least one way the question of how - and whether - to bring baseball back here more than three decades after the Washington Senators fled to Texas is dividing the city. In official Washington, many suit-clad residents envision a team buffing the city's image while luring investment dollars and jobs to downtrodden neighborhoods.
But near the Anacostia River, where the stadium would replace tawdry nightclubs, liquor stores, bus yards and a water pumping facility on a 21-acre tract, some people say that talk about baseball helping the inner city is hogwash and that taxpayers might be getting hosed.
Wrestling with future
Mostly, what emerged in scattered interviews here yesterday was a contemplative city, wrestling with baseball's potential benefits and pitfalls in the wake of the D.C. Council's 7-6 decision late Tuesday to require private interests to share the cost of building the stadium with the District. A Major League Baseball official yesterday called the council decision unacceptable.
The council undid an agreement that Mayor Anthony A. Williams signed with Major League Baseball in September. The agreement called for a new business tax to pay for stadium construction.
In general, people expressed support for bringing back baseball. But many applauded Cropp and her private financing amendment, saying she was fighting a worthy battle. Views were not always tidy, and many people would in the same breath say that they desperately want baseball - but public dollars would be better spent fixing dilapidated schools.
Of course, in a city rarely seen as sports-crazed, some people said simply they couldn't care less about baseball. And a few expressed ignorance of the effort to bring a team here.
Cropp found some support among young professionals and students, who said a new stadium might not affect their lives but it was wrong to throw millions of dollars behind a stadium when schools and neighborhoods are struggling.
"This is a moral thing, and we're doing the wrong thing here, because money should be going to education," said Anj Levy, an attorney braving the cold at lunchtime near DuPont Circle. She confided that she had another reason for opposing baseball here: "I'm an Orioles fan. And we should all just stay O's fans."
Lucius Peterson was downright undecided. The 60-year-old, who runs a small landscaping business, said he attended Senators games in the early 1960s. "I used to eat my little hot dogs and drink my Cokes," he said. "And I'd like it for baseball to be back here. It would be good for morale, and good for our youth."
Peterson, sipping coffee as he ran errands downtown, said evening baseball games would be relief for a stressed city. "Some people around here could go and relieve some of their anxiety. It could reduce some of the tension and frustration of this place. People could go and shout and fuss and have something to talk about the next day on the job."
'It ain't fair'
But asked about Cropp, the lifelong Washingtonian paused. "You know, I understand Linda," he said. "I don't make much money. And once they get the team here, it will be like the lottery. We'll never see the money, but somebody will be getting rich. They'll be getting off like fat pigs.
"If they ain't going to give anything back to the city, it ain't fair."
At a Chipotle restaurant, a favorite lunchtime haunt for young professionals, Mohamed Dayem, a 27-year-old graduate student in the Johns Hopkins University international affairs program, said he is far from a rabid baseball fan but would enjoy watching games, especially if the new stadium were built in the city, as planned.
"If a bunch of people were going, I'd go," he said. But he said he sympathized with Cropp's concerns over tax dollars funding the stadium. "I mean, I don't want to pay for it," Dayem said.
His dining mate, Tarek Radwan, who works for the nonprofit Human Rights Watch, nodded. If the city is able to raise $500 million in taxpayer money, he said, there are other needs to tend to. "I haven't lived here long," said Radwan, 28. "But from what I can see, the city's streets and services could use a lot of help."
Back near the proposed stadium site, Woodland chatted with friends whose views were not so decisive as his own.
Billy Roberts, 65, who lives in Fort Washington but spent his career working at the Postal Service headquarters here, said if the stadium deal collapses and the Nationals go to Virginia, they'll attract fewer fans. "This is just the best location - people work here," he said. "Build in Virginia, and it's so out of the way."
At the same time, Roberts said he backed Cropp. "I think she's got a good strategy to force baseball to do something," he said.
"I just really have mixed emotions," he added. "This is the capital of the United States, and we should have a baseball team."
John Dixon, 40, a truck driver from Gaithersburg who drives frequently into southeast Washington, said the city should be spending on better schools and more hospitals before building a ballpark. "If I pass out on the job around here," he said, "what hospital do I have to go to?"
But the father of seven children acknowledged having a hankering for baseball. "I have never been to a baseball game," said Dixon, wearing his trucking company uniform. "They say the hot dogs are real good. I'd like to get a hot dog, and I'd take my kids down with me."