Approval expected in D.C.


WASHINGTON -- Colin Mills has been longing for a seat at the ballpark on a spring night, a hot dog, a beer and some assurance that he won't wake up the next morning and read that baseball is pulling the Washington Nationals out of the city.

"I want to be a normal baseball fan just like those of the other 29 teams. I'll be happy if I never attend another D.C. Council meeting in my life," says the president of the Nats Fan Club.

After a year and a half of watching the Council and baseball quarrel over stadium financing, Mills and thousands of other Nationals fans are getting their wish.

Barring last-minute complications, the Council is expected to approve today a contract with the companies that will build a 41,000-seat stadium in southeast Washington on the Anacostia River waterfront. Even Phil Mendelson, a Council member who said he is voting against the contract, conceded yesterday, "My expectation is the baseball stuff will pass [today]."

Along with agreement on a 30-year stadium lease signed by city officials yesterday - and by baseball on Sunday - the council's action means the city and baseball have, if warily, committed to a long-term relationship expected to keep the team here for years.

It means fans like Mills and Don Plavnick can focus on runs rather than cost overruns. Baseball, after all, is supposed to be a diversion. "What's important is how the team plays," says Plavnick, who, like Mills, travels from his Virginia home to games at RFK Stadium, the team's interim base.

But not all fans are so forgiving. Season-ticket sales are off about 15 percent from last year, a drop that could cost the team 2,500 to 3,000 fans a game unless things pick up, according to an industry official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the club hasn't officially released the figures.

Calls to the team were referred to Joe Deoudes, the director of ticket sales and services, who was out of the office and unavailable for comment.

Last year, the franchise sold the equivalent of about 21,500 season tickets and averaged about 34,000 fans per game overall in its inaugural season in Washington after arriving from Montreal. That was beyond the team's expectations.

The franchise has looked forward this year to highly marketable series with the Orioles and New York Yankees, neither of whom were on last year's regular-season schedule.

But the offseason was full of uncertainty, highlighted by the absence of a permanent team owner, the loss of several important players, the lack of a television deal on par with other clubs, and the council's refusal until recently to endorse a new stadium in which the city would pick up most of the costs.

"There's a saying that you can't tell the players without a scorecard," Mills said. "In Washington, you couldn't tell the players without a list of council members. If you wanted the latest Nats news, you turned to the business page."

Baseball had hinted it might move the club to another city - again - if there was no resolution.

The council agreed to back the deal only after first approving legislation last month capping the city's costs at $610.8 million.

Mendelson is among a small group of council members who still believe the bill's language isn't strong enough to ensure the District doesn't get stuck paying more than anticipated. "The issue for me hasn't been about baseball but about limiting public financing," Mendelson said.

Those who support the current plan say the District would keep under the cap through such tools as "valued engineering," which means it would scale back any grand plans for stadium design or features to save money. No design has yet been finalized, although working models include plenty of stone and glass that would match nearby monuments and museums.

The District could tap various funding sources if it neared the cost cap, but "we don't think that will ever occur because we have a guaranteed maximum price contract" in which the contractor bears the risk of overruns in most circumstances, said William Hall, a member of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission.

Hall called the council's impending vote on the contract "an important milestone. I started with this in the spring of '96. And so the 10-year journey to bring baseball to Washington and keep it here for years to come is coming to a successful ending."

Under the deal, the Nationals are to vacate RFK Stadium and move into their new home in time for the 2008 season.

"The signed lease is the green light we needed to turn this dream into a reality," said Mayor Anthony A. Williams. "Our efforts have always centered on making the District a better place for people who live and work here."

The city will soon issue bonds, then raise money through a tax on large businesses, a utility tax, a levy on stadium concessions and by charging the team roughly $5 million a year for 30 years.

And fans can resume worrying about such things as who is going to play second base.

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