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IN THE BALLPARK

National Treasure
By Neil deMause

It was twelve hours into a thirteen-hour meeting of the Washington, D.C., city council when council chair Linda Cropp introduced The Amendment Heard Round the World. Cropp, who'd spent the better part of the previous month skipping from one side to the other in the debate over luring the Montreal Expos to Washington with public money—some said $440 million; others predicted more than $600 million to build a new stadium—announced late in the evening of December 14 that she'd picked the price of her support: At least $140 million of the final bill would have to be paid via private financing.

Take it or leave it, said Cropp, who held the swing vote that could approve or kill the stadium bill forever. The council took it. And the world exploded in rage.

Okay, certain corners of the world. Tom Boswell of the Washington Post led the charge, moaning, "The bits of charred ash and shattered fragments that you see falling from the sky are the remnants of the destruction that Cropp wrought." Over at the Washington Times, Tom Knott called Cropp "the Grinch who stole baseball" and asked, "Does the W in your middle initial stand for Weasel?" At least two overexuberant baseball fans phoned Cropp's office with death threats.

And Bob DuPuy, Bud Selig's hit man in matters of stadium extortion, released an angry statement calling Cropp's actions "wholly unacceptable" and hinting that if she didn't back down immediately, baseball would have no choice but to take its ball club and go home.

It was the most unexpected twist in the years-long saga of the Montreal Expos, leaving some columnists decrying Cropp for making a "laughingstock" of her town, while others cheered her for standing up to the demands of the baseball barons. Except none of it was true. The Cropp Amendment was neither a deal-killer nor the savior of D.C.'s downtrodden, library-starved masses. And while December's mayhem couldn't have been what Selig and his cronies wanted when they anointed Washington as the winner of the Expos sweepstakes back in September, it should hardly have come as a surprise. Like Terry Francona sending Curt Schilling to the mound to start Game 6 of the ALCS, Bud Selig rolled the dice with D.C. because he had no other options. Except the stitches on Selig's deal didn't hold together quite so well.

It may seem like the Montreal Expos have been homeless and unloved for eons, but really it's only been a few years. As recently as 1994, the Expos had the best record in baseball; Montrealers like to blame the strike that wiped out the rest of that season for the fan apathy that was to come, but even in 1996, after the team's young stars had fled to greener pastures, the Expos were still outdrawing such teams as the big-market Mets.

What happened was twofold. In 1999, the old Expos ownership threw in the towel on squeezing stadium funding from the Quebecois stone, leading to the first proclamations of the team's "last year in Montreal." Then, in 2001, the Expos were selected by Selig as one of the two teams targeted for his ill-fated "contraction" scheme; by the time that gambit fell by the wayside in the 2002 labor agreement, MLB had already taken ownership of the Expos. Now it just needed to figure out what to do with them.

A savvy marketer would have looked at Montreal's three million souls and rich, if spotty, baseball history and tried to figure out how to bring back the fans who'd crowded the Big O in the Dawson and Carter era. Bud Selig looked at a team in the hand, and saw leverage. And thus was born the two-year-long carnival that the late Doug Pappas dubbed the "Stadium Extortion Across North America Tour."

The purpose of the Expos auction was clear from the start. No buyers for the team would be sought, not at first. Instead, the single criterion for winning the Expos lottery became: what metropolitan area would be willing to put up a brand-new stadium for the team, at no cost to Selig and his Cabal of Twenty-Nine?

For baseball's ringleaders, this strategy would have two main benefits. The first is obvious: once it was made clear that the new owner of the Expos would be getting a new stadium as a welcome-to-the-ball-club present, the team's sale price would shoot through the roof—as much as $300 million or more, a nifty 150 percent profit on the team they purchased just three years earlier.

The other was a bit more complicated, but no less real. In recent years, baseball's once-mighty stadium juggernaut has begun to slip, as cities and states have been increasingly wary of throwing tax money at the local sports franchise. The most recent deal to be approved, the new Cardinals stadium now under construction in St. Louis, left an alarming two-thirds of the costs on the shoulders of the team owners. Meanwhile, with expansion clubs residing in even such eternal bridesmaids as Tampa Bay, it was growing increasingly difficult to find out-of-town suitors if your stadium demands weren't met—the most embarrassing example of this came in 1997, when the Twins declared that they were moving to an obscure corner of North Carolina, only to come slinking home after folks there said they wanted nothing to do with public stadium subsidies, either.

Clearly none of this would do. A new bar needed to be set, and the Expos would have to be the ones to do it.

The two-year-long Expos go-round stirred up an interesting cast of characters, to say the least. One applicant declared that he could build a privately financed stadium along a stretch of highway in central Connecticut, where the team would become the "Connecticut Colonials." Norfolk, Virginia, made a surprisingly strong pitch, only to have it revealed that the twenty-something boy wonders behind the bid were Wall Street drop-outs with padded rÈsumes. It wasn't pretty.

What finally forced Selig's hand was not a breakthrough—the D.C. council's powerful Jack Evans was still refusing to approve a stadium bill until he was assured of getting the team—but a defeat. On primary day last September, three incumbent city council members were defeated by three upstart challengers (if two-time District mayor Marion Barry can be considered an upstart), all of whom bitterly opposed public stadium funding (as did, polls showed, their constituents). Once the new council took office in January, the window of opportunity for a D.C. stadium would be shut, and Selig would be left with Norfolk or Monterrey, Mexico (or, if you believe the hype, Las Vegas), to choose from. Unwilling to take that chance, Selig gambled, wagering that once he announced the Expos were bringing baseball back to Washington after thirty-three years, he could get any stadium bill he wanted through the council.

He almost made a clean getaway. Five days before the first of two required votes, the stadium was deemed unstoppable, as Evans, now a stadium diehard, summarily killed all attempts to modify the deal agreed to by Mayor Anthony Williams. Then Cropp began voicing concerns about cost overruns. She moved the vote back by two weeks. During the first vote, she abstained, letting the bill pass but raising red flags in the hearts of baseball's ruling class. Finally, after failing to get what she considered meaningful concessions from MLB, Cropp struck with her "private financing" amendment, setting off the weeklong firestorm that briefly had the newborn Nats shuttering their souvenir outlet and threatening to take off for parts unknown. Though the council chair spoke of this as if it were a safeguard on the city treasury, in fact it was nothing of the sort—Cropp was demanding private "financing," not private "funds," a condition that could be met by borrowing money from a private company, then paying it back with city tax revenues.

In the end, of course, everybody blinked. Cropp, for all her talk of protecting the city budget, wanted concessions from MLB but didn't especially care what they were; Selig, though presumably fuming at having to buy a vote this late in the game, could afford to adjust his demands slightly so long as the big payoff was still intact. After all the Sturm und Drang, the bill that was finally signed into law in December was no better than what was first proposed back in September. The price tag had gone up, from $440 million to as much as $581 million, while the team's share of the costs was identical: $3 to $5.5 million a year in rent payments, and not a penny more.

So Selig dodged his bullet, and got what he wanted. At press time, the Expos were expected to sell for $300 million, two and a half times what MLB paid for the team in 2001—though much of that will go to keep Orioles owner Peter Angelos from getting uppity about sharing a market with the Nats. But more important, Selig can now go to legislators in Minnesota and Florida and Oakland and tell them with a straight face: "St. Louis, San Francisco—that's yesterday's news. This is the new industry standard, and it says you pay, and we reap the profits."

Linda Cropp may have gained her city a ball club, but the cost—both to D.C. and to cities across the nation—could be very great indeed.

—EFQ

NEIL deMAUSE is the co-author of Field of Schemes: How The Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit and a business of baseball writer for Baseball Prospectus. He lives in Brooklyn, where he currently spends much of his time running the fieldofschemes.com website and bemoaning the Yankees' Tony Womack signing.

© 2005 Neil deMause

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