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

red numerals.

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

Monument.

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

agreement.

”All of a sudden the Expos are sitting there, just a horrible

franchise with no owner,” Evans said. ”The issue was, `What do we

do next?”’

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

still standing.

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

Baltimore.

”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

dying.”

”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

agreement.”

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

again.

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

stadium.

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

elective office.

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