Getting baseball back in DC: ‘This was a struggle’
1859. 1910. 1924. 1937. 1948. 1961. 1971.
The stroll up the gentle slope to the Home Plate Gate outside
Nationals Park offers a concrete history of baseball in Washington,
D.C., with the landmark years embedded into the sidewalk in huge
After 1971, understandably, there is a gap. It takes a few extra
steps to get to the marker for 2005.
If only those 34 years were that simple to traverse for the
city’s long-suffering fans, specifically those who fought, lobbied
and practically begged for the sport to return after the Senators
left for Texas after the ’71 season.
At long last, on Wednesday, they will see the payoff. Or, more
precisely, the playoffs.
”At no time – and I want to stress this -was this something
that was preordained to happen,” longtime D.C. Councilman Jack
Evans said this week. ”This was a struggle. … Baseball just
didn’t want to come to D.C.”
In retrospect, it only seems fitting and proper that the
national pastime should be showcased in the nation’s capital, that
the Washington Nationals should be hosting the St. Louis Cardinals
in Game 3 of the NL division series in a packed ballpark that
offers upper deck views of the Capitol and the Washington
But it’s the first playoff game in D.C. since 1933. That’s
right: 1933. For much of that wilderness there was no baseball at
all and only quixotic hopes it would return. It took an ideal storm
of circumstances – involving a determined set of sung and unsung
heroes – to get it back, climaxed by a celebratory announcement at
Washington’s City Museum on Sept. 29, 2004.
Both before and after that date, the D.C. baseball saga had more
drama than a 12-inning game in October.
”There were times,” said Fred Malik, a key figure in the
quest, ”we thought we were going to blow it.”
How did it happen? The simple answer is that a game of ownership
merry-go-round left the Major League Baseball powers-that-be with
nowhere else to go.
Florida Marlins owner John Henry wanted to buy the Boston Red
Sox, so he sold them to Jeffrey Loria, who had to sell the Montreal
Expos first. That left Montreal without anyone at the top, so the
other 29 major league owners bought the club, putting it in
perpetual limbo with a dwindling fan base and no prospects for a
much-needed new ballpark. There was even thought of eliminating the
team altogether, but the major league players negotiated a
moratorium on contraction in the 2002 collective bargaining
”All of a sudden the Expos are sitting there, just a horrible
franchise with no owner,” Evans said. ”The issue was, `What do we
Portland, Las Vegas, Norfolk and Charlotte were among possible
destinations, but Washington had something those cities didn’t – a
serviceable ballpark that would make do until a new one could be
built. That would be RFK Stadium, the home of the Senators all
those years ago. Though it was woefully outdated, at least it was
But baseball was playing hardball. Commissioner Bud Selig had it
clear that the new ballpark would have to be financed 100 percent
up-front by the city. That was a tall order for a municipality that
had been through some tough financial times, and where opponents
argued loudly that money should be funneled instead toward
struggling schools or other needs.
Then-Mayor Anthony Williams huddled with his advisers and put
his political reputation on the line by calling baseball’s bluff.
In the spring of 2004, he met with a group of baseball owners and
explained a creative financing plan that met their demands.
”There was one clear thing baseball said to us: `You’ve got to
build a stadium,”’ Evans said. ”It wasn’t `We’ll pay for some of
it; we’ll pay for part of it.’ It was: `You’ve got to pay for the
stadium.’ That was the way it was, or we’re not coming. And I
believe they meant that.”
Then came the follow-up questions: Was baseball serious this
time, or was Washington again being used as a pawn to get other
cities to make better offers? And what about Baltimore Orioles
owner Peter Angelos, who claimed that Washington should not have a
team because it was part of his team’s market?
And what about the folks across the Potomac River? The Northern
Virginia region, with his wealthy residents fueled by the Internet
boom, made a serious bid bankrolled by former telecommunications
executive Bill Collins.
In fact, it’s felt that one of the people most responsible for
baseball in D.C. is then-Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, who balked at
the last minute over a financing plan that would have built a
stadium in Loudoun County – just a little farther away from
”They had us,” Evans said. ”And had not Gov. Warner at the
time refused to back the bonds with the state’s full faith and
credit, they could very well have gotten the franchise.”
Eventually, baseball said yes to the Expos’ move to Washington.
Then they said no. A few weeks after that festive September 2004
news conference, the city council voted down the financing plan
because it used too much public money.
Major League Baseball responded by shutting down the business
and promotional operations that had been set up in D.C. Mayor
Williams said: ”The dream of 33 years is now once again close to
”The most troubling moment in the odyssey was about 1 o’clock
in the morning on that Tuesday in December,” said Bill Hall,
chairman of the D.C. government’s Sports and Entertainment
Committee, ”when the council was unable to pass the baseball
Fast and furious negotiations ensued. A compromise was worked
out, but one that was able to satisfy baseball. Two weeks later,
the council voted 7-6 to approve the new deal, and the move was on
The renamed franchise, the Nationals, debuted at RFK in 2005.
Certainly there have been new challenges since then. The team was
terrible most of the time. Attendance was disappointing, and local
television ratings were abysmal. The council had to go through
another contentious vote to approve a lease agreement for the new
But baseball found an owner for the team, selling it to real
estate developer Ted Lerner. The club moved into Nationals Park in
2008. Fan support has grown, and the team is finally winning.
Most of those responsible for making it happen will be there
Wednesday for the playoff game. Many of them have moved on. Malik
gathered a list of thousands of potential season ticket holders and
hoped to own the team, but baseball passed him over in favor of
Lerner. Evans is one of only two council members who essentially
supported the baseball movement from start to finish who still hold
But most everyone agrees: It’s all been worth it.
”When I walked out of that stadium after the last (regular
season) game last Wednesday, people were just so happy and thankful
and all of that,” Evans said. ”I looked around, and the place was
packed. I’ve been at last games in the past when there’s nobody
there. It just was a good feeling that whatever it took to get
there, we did it. And that’s what mattered.”
Follow Joseph White on Twitter: http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP