IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

MLB's arrogance on D.C. issue amazes

WashPost: Selig and his cronies tried to take city for a sucker

Baseball is having a funhouse mirror effect on the District. Everything is distorted and inverted. The skinny look fat and the fat look skinny, common sense is called ridiculous, and all the wrong people are blamed. It's time to bust the funhouse mirror, preferably with a baseball bat, and look at this thing straight on. If you want to get mad at somebody for the weeks of uncertainty over whether the Washington Nationals are coming to town, get mad at Commissioner Bud Selig, and the rest of his arrogant extortionist pals in Major League Baseball.

Why should a capital city crawl on its collective belly for baseball owners? What on earth is defensible about a deal that demands the city publicly raise $584 million for a stadium project, so that owners can sell the team and stadium rights for a couple of hundred million in personal profits? Let me get this straight: The city is supposed to build the stadium but is not allowed to use it, except for 12 days a year? It can't even collect parking fees to help pay for it? And if anything goes wrong in building it, we pay them a fine for lost income?

The city gets all of the risk and none of the profit?

Are you kidding me?

These are the sensible questions D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp has asked. And yet she is the one guilty of malign ambition and overreaching? She's the villain, with a stunningly low 40 percent approval rating in a Post poll, even as she worked stubbornly yesterday to negotiate concessions that could be worth millions of dollars to the city. If she wins those concessions she will not only have done her job but the mayor's, too. Despite all the panic and recrimination, there is a good chance the team will wind up here anyway, and under better terms than those originally demanded by Major League Baseball.

Now, I'm not a resident of the District. I live in New York City and commute to Washington. Does this make me different from my friends and fellow columnists Michael Wilbon, who lives in Bethesda, or Tom Boswell, who lives in Annapolis? Probably. I'm not as emotionally invested in whether the District gets a major league baseball team. I see the events in Washington from a greater distance, for better or worse.

And I'm aghast at what I see.

I see a bunch of baseball honchos, led by Selig and his dealmaker Jerry Reinsdorf, who treated the nation's capital like a sucker ripe for rooking, and took its mayor for a sap. I see a hopelessly weak mayor who made promises to both sides that he couldn't keep and agreed to terms he never should have -- and that Rudy Giuliani surely would not have tolerated.

I see a council that knows its mayor all too well and sniffed warily at the reek of this deal, even as its members stood on the podium next to him and put Nationals caps on their heads. Several council members who were at the celebration, including Cropp, said in no uncertain terms they needed to study the stadium financing plan before they decided how to vote on it. "I haven't seen the legislation. I can't buy a pig in a poke," Cropp said.

I see a haughty baseball commissioner who extracted profoundly insulting concessions from the city -- "the sweetheart deal of all sweetheart deals" as one baseball exec put it -- and who then piled discourtesy on top of insult. Instead of understanding that he had overreached and there was mounting opposition to the deal, Selig ignored the D.C. Council and treated it like an irrelevance.

I see council members who went back to their wards to sell the plan and were confronted by angry shouting crowds at civic association meetings. I see the city's chief financial officer, Natwar M. Gandhi, staring at the numbers and realizing that the mayor's office had underestimated the cost -- maybe by as much as $100 million. I see small business executives bitterly complaining that the plan taxed them unfairly.

I see that trouble gathered like a thunderhead for months and baseball executives ignored it. On Dec. 2, Selig came to Washington and declared icily that baseball would not reopen negotiations. Cropp sat right next to Selig -- and he barely spoke to her. Where was Anthony Williams? He was out of town -- again.

I see a city that had finally had enough, and stood up for itself. Baseball's refusal to make a single significant concession, to amend the most onerous parts of the single worst deal in the history of cities, was the real deal breaker. This was not a matter of a single sorehead or troublemaker fouling the deal. The council rejected baseball's terms by an overwhelming vote of 10-3. Not 7-6 or 8-5. In a story on Sunday examining the collapse of support by the Post's Lori Montgomery, council members who had once been friendly to baseball were openly angry.

"They clearly take us as fools," said council member Carol Schwartz. "In their eyes," council member David A. Catania said, "we must be something beneath dogcatchers."

Another observer who has been watching baseball's dealings with Washington from afar, without the funhouse mirror effect, is Ralph Nader. He fired off a pair of letters on Friday, one to Cropp urging her not to buckle under to criticism, and another to Selig and his fellow privateers, calling them out as the real villains in this affair.

"What was your answer to the council?" he asked. "No concessions on sharing cost overruns. No concessions on the compensatory payment by the District to the team if the stadium is not completed on time. And no charitable fund commitment beyond devoting 'net proceeds' from one exhibition game. That is simply offensive. No paltry concessions from you in exchange for a $584 million publicly-funded stadium project? No longer surprised by your level of avarice, we must express amazement at your unrelenting arrogance."