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What a game.
No, not the baseball game on the field. Here on the eve of the Washington Nationals’ first-ever World Series, exactly how the Nats got to town in the first place 15 years ago is a story fading into the background. But it’s as riveting as a seven-game series.
Months of private meetings, lost opportunities, a doomed effort by Virginia to snare the team, and a razor-thin vote by the D.C. Council finally sealed the deal.
From 1999 on, then-D.C. Mayor Anthony A. (Tony) Williams and a handful of other determined officials and business leaders had sought to lure Major League Baseball back to D.C. The city had lost two teams, a third chance was a stretch. Plus, very loud critics shouted that the recently bankrupt District was in over its head to even consider spending millions on a new ballpark, a ballpark that it couldn’t afford, and, more importantly, shouldn’t afford with so many pressing social issues.
But after rancorous debate on Dec. 21, 2004, the D.C. Council narrowly voted 7-to-6 to approve the stadium deal just days before MLB was set to yank its offer to relocate the Montreal Expos to Washington.
“Baseball was worried, it was very close,” Williams tells City Paper as he looks to the World Series here. “It’s been a long saga to come to this really great milestone.”
Shortly before the crucial 2004 council vote, Williams recalls then-Expos manager Frank Robinson came to see him in the mayor’s office. An icon of baseball lore and the first black manager in MLB, Robinson managed the Expos and would later manage the Washington team. Williams says Robinson “offered to go out into the neighborhoods with me” to dispel criticism that baseball would take money from education and other issues. “If I had to do it over again…,” Williams ruefully says, his voice trailing off, “I didn’t take him up on it.”
Williams also had appointed high-level defense attorney Mark Tuohey as chairman of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission in early 2004. Tuohey led negotiations with Jerry Reinsdorf, who headed the MLB selection team. “The mayor made it clear,” Tuohey says, “Your most important responsibility is to break the deadlock and get this done.”
As co-author Harry Jaffe and I reported in our book Dream City, Williams had “wanted a team but Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans craved one.” The veteran council member believed baseball was another way to revive the struggling city.
Earlier, Evans had boldly supported the downtown basketball MCI Center arena (later the Verizon Center and now Capital One Arena) in the late 1990s when opponents had said it was too big and too expensive. Evans also had pushed for the expansive Walter E. Washington Convention Center when the anti-voices were screaming against it, too.
Now, the ballpark which cost taxpayers about $700 million and those other facilities are drawing millions of people and hundreds of millions in revenue to the financially stable District. “Where would we be without the arena, the convention center and hotel, the ballpark, Audi soccer stadium,” Evans asks and answers, “We’d be Detroit, a city still struggling in every respect.”
The District came close to losing the team to Northern Virginia. But then-Governor Mark Warner declined to put the state’s full faith and credit behind the bonds needed to build a ballpark in Loudoun County. An earlier plan to put it in Arlington’s Pentagon City—near where an Amazon headquarters will be—also failed.
Another key factor was then-D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp. Like others, she had insisted MLB just build at the old RFK site and ante more money. That won her some praise from deal critics, but she also was vilified by many others. In the end, Cropp tells City Paper she realized that if she voted no the whole opportunity would fail. “It was really one of the biggest votes we ever had to do,” she says.
That Dec. 21, 2004 vote is important city history. Then-Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty voted no, also favoring the RFK site. Later, as mayor, Fenty beamed as he presided in 2008 over the opening of the new stadium. In addition to Fenty, the six no votes were at-large members Phil Mendelson, Carol Schwartz, and David Catania, as well as Jim Graham ( Ward 1) and Kathy Patterson (Ward 3).
Along with Cropp and Evans, voting in favor were at-large members Vincent Orange and Harold Brazil, Sharon Ambrose (Ward 6), Kevin Chavous (Ward 7), and Sandy Allen (Ward 8).
“Everybody is cheering now,” Evans says.
Especially former Mayor Williams. He attended the last playoff game when the Nats eliminated the St. Louis Cardinals to advance to the World Series. Williams has close ties to St Louis. He met his wife there. “I grew up a St. Louis Cardinal fan,” he recalls, “but it’s about time for Washington.”
Tom Sherwood is a City Paper contributing writer and the Resident Political Analyst for the WAMU Politics Hour.