National editor Harry Jaffe, a Philadelphia native who suffered through the disastrous 1964 Phillies season, is prepared to hope for the best with the Washington Nationals.Mr. October came to see Mr. Mayor in September 2004.
"I want you to know that I will be the owner of the Washington baseball team," Reggie Jackson told DC mayor Anthony Williams. "Bud Selig has signed on."
The Hall of Fame slugger, known as Mr. October for his World Series heroics, had arrived that day in a dark brown suit, pink shirt, and blue tie. He looked more banker than ballplayer. Tony Williams was honored that Jackson would visit.
"I'm coming," Jackson said. "Deal with it."
Though no deal had been made to bring the Montreal Expos or any other team to the nation's capital, Jackson was adamant that he had an "understanding" with Major League Baseball owners: They wanted a minority owner, and they had "designated" him. He was bringing in wealthy partners, perhaps Paul Allen, who made millions as a cofounder of Microsoft.
Williams was not surprised that Jackson and others were beginning to throw their power and money at the prospect of owning a major-league team in DC. The city had been bidding for the Montreal team since 2002, and baseball owners were hinting that a decision was imminent.
But months before Jackson was strutting in the District building, Major League Baseball executives were calling on Virginia businessmen and politicians.
"We have two sites to show you," Virginia baseball impresario Bill Collins told the two executives, John McHale and Jim Ostertag.
They boarded a helicopter at Dulles International Airport and flew over the I-66 tech corridor, then down the Potomac River to Prince William County. County supervisors showed off possible stadium sites. Back at Dulles, the league officials met with politicians and economists who pitched the drawing power of Virginia.
A few months later, Collins was telling colleagues, "We have it."
Tony Williams never heard from Reggie Jackson again. Bill Collins didn't get a team in Virginia. It would take until late September for Major League Baseball to designate Washington, DC, as the new home for the Montreal team.
This is how baseball came to DC--and how Virginia lost the game. The deal was done and undone at least half a dozen times. And as the Washington Nationals
take the field
this month, playing baseball here for the first time since the Senators left in 1971, the deal is still not complete. Major League Baseball still must choose an owner.
It is a story of wealthy men with big reputations and good intentions. Of the old guard with mellowed money and a new guard with fresh cash. Of political leaders with grand designs for new stadiums built with public money. Of major-league owners driven by big money and bigger egos.
It was a deal driven at times by two men who were not in the room: Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos and President George W. Bush.
Looking back on the long campaign to bring baseball back to Washington, Tony Williams says, "It was like being in an auction, except that it was rigged the whole time--for Virginia."
Bill Collins is a big man with baseball in his blood. In 1992 Collins was having a beer with some friends. Among them were investment banker Russ Ramsey and speakers bureau founders Bernie Swain and Harry Rhodes. Collins started lamenting the loss of the Senators.
"Why don't we try to bring baseball back?" he said.
Born in DC, Collins grew up learning to zip the hard ball to his father, Bill Collins Jr., who played minor-league ball for the Cleveland Indians. Young Bill played catcher at George Washington University and in 1972 was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers, owned by a newcomer to the league--Allan H. "Bud" Selig.
Collins adored the Washington Senators. In his college days, he would catch for Senators hurler Jim Hannon before spring training.
After a couple of seasons catching for minor-league teams, Collins went into politics, then lobbying, then business. He got into the cellular-phone industry in the early 1980s. He built and sold companies and eventually dominated the pager market with a company called Metrocall.
Collins left the bar that night in 1992 and started checking out the possibility of bringing a baseball team to the Washington area. He made calls and found that there were franchises in play.
"This is something we can do," he reported back to his friends.
The men formed American Baseball Capital in 1993 and proceeded to buy minor-league teams. Their Yankees farm team in Greensboro, North Carolina, gave Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera their starts.
In 1994, Major League Baseball was expanding to two cities. A new Collins group, Virginia Baseball Club, made a run. It was one of four finalists, along with groups in Tampa, Phoenix, and Orlando. Collins, Ramsey, and others met with baseball owners at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida. Among the group was Mark Warner, then a Virginia high-technology executive.
The owners already had settled on Phoenix and Tampa, but Collins says some were intrigued with the idea of locating a team in Washington. When one of the owners introduced a motion to add a third team and open up Washington as the potential site, another owner "went nuts," according to Collins. It was Peter Angelos, the new owner of the Baltimore Orioles.
The owners made one thing clear to Collins: His group needed a site for a stadium. Returning to Washington, the group paid a visit to Sharon Pratt Kelly, then the mayor of DC. They made a pitch to build a stadium in the capital city.
According to Collins, she responded, "If I didn't want to build a stadium for Jack Kent Cooke and the Washington Redskins, what makes you think I would want to build one for you and Major League Baseball?"
So they went looking in Virginia.
Bill Hall and Jack Evans were driving one spring day in 1996 out New York Avenue to the beach house they shared in Dewey Beach, Delaware. Hall was at the wheel of his convertible.
"Let's take a left up Seventh Street," Evans said.
Evans and Hall had been buddies since the mid-1980s, when they were bachelors making the rounds at bars like Beowulf. Hall was best man at Evans's wedding; Evans was best man for Hall. In 1996 Evans was a DC councilmember representing Ward 2, stretching from Georgetown across the downtown business district. Hall had been working on the recently formed DC Sports & Entertainment Commission.
Evans and Hall toured the Mount Vernon Square neighborhood just north of downtown, then a wasteland of parking lots and dilapidated brownstones.
"Shouldn't there be a stadium here?" Evans asked.
"Great idea," Hall said.
Quite a few Washingtonians had thought that bringing baseball back was a good idea. Giant Food executive Joe Danzansky had tried. Banker Robert Pincus had worked to form an ownership group. Developer Oliver Carr was once involved. Nothing had progressed beyond the talking stage.
Even talking about baseball in 1996 seemed quixotic. The DC government was close to bankruptcy; Marion Barry had been elected to a fourth term, after serving time in jail for a drug rap; Congress had appointed a federal board to oversee the city's books.
Still, the city had been transformed since 1971, when the Senators left. Developers had re-created parts of downtown, which was moving east. The suburbs were booming with telecommunications and biotech firms.
Hall created a baseball committee within the commission. Its goal: Bring the American pastime back to the nation's capital.
As Evans and Hall were dreaming of a team in DC, Bill Collins was taking a swing at the Houston Astros.
Marvin Bush, George's younger brother but not an owner, had invited Collins and Russ Ramsey to his suite at the All-Star game in the Texas Rangers' stadium in the summer of 1995. They met Drayton McLane, owner of the Houston team.
"Are you guys still interested in owning a major-league team?" he asked.
"Absolutely," Collins said.
Houston was suffering from the collapse of the oil industry. The Astrodome was falling apart. The pro-football team, the Oilers, was on the verge of leaving town. McLane said he would move the Astros if Houston didn't build a new stadium.
After the season, Collins flew down to Houston. McLane asked if they wanted to buy the team.
"Only if we can move it to the Washington, DC, area," Collins said.
"That's what I'm talking about," McLane said.
Virginia Baseball Club, with the addition of Richard Darman and other partners in the Carlyle Group to the consortium, reached an agreement to buy the Astros. The deal was subject to the approval of Major League Baseball and a referendum in Houston on whether the city would build a new stadium. A yes vote would keep the Astros in Texas.
Until the last vote was counted, McLane said the town would never vote to build a stadium. It did, by two percentage points. Another strikeout for Virginia.
But then-governor George Allen was supportive of Collins's dream, and he helped put the state's money behind it. In 1996 the Virginia General Assembly approved a plan spelling out how the commonwealth would back a financing plan to build a stadium. Collins and the Virginia Baseball Club then entered a public-private partnership to build the ballpark.
Collins reached an agreement in principle to buy the Montreal Expos in 1999, but the deal fell through. He made another pitch in 2000. Collins says he offered $168 million for the team, but Major League Baseball did not respond.
Again, no deal.
In the summer of 1999, Joseph Gildenhorn paid a visit to his friend Fred Malek. Both men are pillars of the community, both wealthy and well-connected Republicans. Both vacation in Aspen. Gildenhorn founded local development giant JBG and went on to serve as ambassador to Switzerland under President George H.W. Bush. But he was visiting Malek that day in his role as vice chair of the DC Sports & Entertainment Commission. He presented a study that had identified three potential stadium sites and concluded that baseball could thrive in Washington. He was accompanied by three other commission members: attorneys Bill Hall, Paul Wolff, and Stephen Porter.
"We and the mayor would like you to be the owner of the team," Gildenhorn said.
"I'm really flattered," Malek said, "but I have my hands full."
Malek was running Thayer Capital Partners, the merchant bank he founded in 1993.
"We'll do the legwork," Gildenhorn said. Paul Wolff volunteered to quit the commission and work with Malek.
Of all the wealthy and connected businessmen in the region, why Fred Malek?
A Chicago native, Malek had grown up a White Sox fan. He recalls skipping school on opening days and sneaking into the stands. He played sandlot ball.
Malek worked for Republican presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan. But he made his fortune in the hotel business, working as president of Marriott Hotels from 1981 to 1988.
It was that year that he got a call from George W. Bush, then a young man in the Texas oil business and son of the man in the White House. Malek had met young Bush while running the GOP convention in 1988. George asked Malek if he was interested in becoming a partner in the group buying the Texas Rangers.
"I'll be happy to jump in and bring others," Malek recalls saying.
Malek was one of Bush's partners for the nine years they owned the Rangers. He was vetted by the owners. They welcomed him into the club. Along the way he met MLB commissioner Bud Selig. The Bush group sold the Rangers in June 1998.
When Gildenhorn and his group approached Malek in 1999, George Bush was governor of Texas, and Bill Clinton was in the White House. Still, they had a sense Malek had the markings of a potential lead owner of the new baseball team.
"Let me make a few calls," Malek said.
Fred Malek called James V. Kimsey, founding CEO of America Online. Both men had graduated from West Point.
"Baseball was invented by a West Pointer," Malek said. "It seems only right and just that two West Pointers should be the ones who bring our national pastime back to the nation's capital."
Kimsey did a mental salute and said, "Right on."
Malek made a similar pitch to a coterie of wealthy Washingtonians, among them Franklin Raines, then chief of mortgage giant Fannie Mae, and Joe Robert, founder of the J.E. Robert Company real-estate investment firm. He talked about building a sports institution and the benefits to the Washington area.
"It may not be a great thing for us economically," he said, "but it will be great for the city."
Kimsey, Raines, and Robert agreed to form an owners group with Malek. He called Gildenhorn.
"Sign us up," he said.
At that moment, both DC and Northern Virginia had public-private partnerships focused on landing a major-league team.
Malek formed the Washington Baseball Club and entered a formal agreement with the DC Sports & Entertainment Commission. They would share the costs of studying sites and marketing the city to Major League Baseball. In return, the city would make the Malek group its preferred owner and give it exclusive rights to RFK Stadium and a new ballpark.
In February 1999, councilmembers Jack Evans, Linda Cropp, and Charlene Drew Jarvis joined Bill Hall and newly elected mayor Anthony Williams at a press conference to launch the effort. Wearing white baseball caps with "W" in dark letters, they broke into a rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
Williams mourned the loss of the Redskins to suburban Maryland. "If we don't get baseball back," he said, "it won't be because we didn't try."
Across the Potomac River, Bill Collins had set up a matching partnership with the Commonwealth of Virginia. He lobbied the legislature to create a commission that would fund a new stadium. In return, his Virginia Baseball Club would have an exclusive right to negotiate a lease. Outgoing governor George Allen was as avid a baseball backer as Tony Williams.
Both DC and Virginia spent the next two years romancing Major League Baseball, courting public opinion, laying the groundwork for a team that might come their way.
Tony Williams went to All-Star games and national political meetings to hand out baseballs that read BRING BASEBALL BACK TO WASHINGTON. The other side read MADE IN CHINA.
On December 6, 2001, Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig testified before Congress to explain why baseball owners had voted a month before to "contract" the league by lopping off two teams.
"Our losses are more severe than any other sport," Selig told the House Judiciary Committee, which was considering legislation to repeal baseball's antitrust exemption. Among other things, it allowed baseball owners to control where teams moved.
One of the teams slated for contraction was the Minnesota Twins. Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura sat at the witness table near Selig.
"These owners are not losing the money they claim to be losing," Ventura said. "If they were, they wouldn't be paying the salaries they're paying." He looked at Selig: "It's asinine. These people did not get the wealth they have by being stupid."
Selig was smart enough to realize that to protect the exemption he would need friends among the politicians; he could not play the congressmen for fools. They would not let him get away with erasing two teams and still keep baseball's antitrust exemption.
Selig and the other 29 owners would have to maintain the team in Minnesota and the other one bleeding cash--the Montreal Expos, whose owner was trying to sell the team.
In February 2002, Major League Baseball paid $120 million for the Expos. An orphaned team in a town more accustomed to hockey pucks than baseballs, the Expos lost lots of money--some $45 million a year. The owners decided to unload their problem child. They set up a committee to find a new home for the Expos. Washington and Virginia began elbowing each other in their efforts to adopt the Montreal franchise.
An immediate problem--more for DC than for Virginia--was Peter Angelos. The owner of the Baltimore Orioles had vowed that he would stand in the way of any team that wanted to make its home in Washington, 35 miles down the road. A humorless and litigious lawyer, Angelos was also a friend of Bud Selig's.
Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of both the Chicago White Sox and the Chicago Bulls basketball team, was perhaps the only owner who had the power and prestige to come between Selig and Angelos.
And Reinsdorf knew Washington. He had graduated from George Washington University. He had reviewed a Washington baseball bid in 1985. Selig appointed Reinsdorf to head the Expos relocation committee.
Jerry Reinsdorf invited the cities interested in the Expos to make presentations at the league's New York offices on Park Avenue in January 2003.
The District was ready, or so it thought. The mayor's business-development staff, led by deputy mayor Eric Price, had worked up financing and stadium plans. Mayor Williams and council chair Linda Cropp helped make the pitch.
Price presented the District's financing plan, laying out a deal whereby the city would pay two-thirds of the $300-million cost of the new stadium and the team owner would pay the remaining one-third.
"Are those the numbers you had in mind?" asked Bobby Goldwater, executive director of the DC Sports & Entertainment Commission. Since taking the job in November 2000, Goldwater had focused on bringing baseball to DC.
"Yes," Reinsdorf replied. "But we were thinking of a different split. We were thinking three-thirds and no-thirds."
Which meant that the city would have to pay for the stadium.
Reinsdorf had negotiated a similar arrangement with Charlotte, North Carolina, when it came to locating a new NBA franchise there. In his role as Bulls owner, he had crafted a deal in which the city agreed to build the arena, then the NBA chose an acceptable owner--in that case BET founder Bob Johnson. This became known as the Charlotte model.
At the New York meeting, everyone laughed at the three-thirds/no-thirds line. Reinsdorf smiled, but he was serious.
He gave the same message to Bill Collins and the Virginia Baseball Authority. And to representatives from Portland, Oregon, who also wanted a seat at the baseball table. Monterey, Mexico, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, were also said to be in the running.
Both DC and Virginia faced the same challenges: find a stadium site, find a way to finance it, neutralize Peter Angelos. But being farther down the road from Baltimore, Virginia had a perceived edge--at least in the minds of Collins and Malek.
Fred Malek occasionally would run into his former partner in the Texas Rangers. George W. Bush was now President of the United States.
"How ya doing on that baseball team?" the President would ask. "How's Buddy doing?" As in Bud Selig.
Malek describes locker-room-type exchanges rather than serious discussions. President Bush never took a position on whether baseball should come back to Washington. But he made it clear that he knew a team was up for grabs and his friend and former partner Malek was leading the group to make the play in DC.
Bush had known baseball was important to DC since he had arrived in town. Mayor Williams had raised the subject with him when the two had lunch on the President's third day in office.
Unlike Ronald Reagan, who in 1985 urged then-commissioner Peter Ueberroth to restore "a tradition which has long been absent from the city--the presidential privilege of throwing out the first ball," Bush never made any formal declaration about baseball in DC.
But the owners knew where the President stood.
One Sunday in March 2003, Malek brought his ownership group to the mayor's office on the sixth floor of DC's John Wilson Building. It was a dress rehearsal for a formal presentation to Major League Baseball, scheduled for the following week in Phoenix.
On hand were Malek, Frank Raines, Jim Kimsey, and Joe Robert. They had added Democratic power broker Vernon Jordan, ex-Redskin Darrell Green, and retired Disney executive Dennis Hightower to their group, but none attended the meeting. Jeff Zients and David Bradley, who had made their fortunes in the corporate consulting business, also joined the group. Zients would later become its president.
Mayor Williams, backed by Eric Price, Stephen Green, and other development staff, ran through their pitch.
Raines was unimpressed, according to the mayor's people. He and Malek said the District officials were behaving as if baseball was going to bestow the team on the city.
"You are not making your case," Raines said.
Malek's group was dependent on the city. Because baseball had said it would award the team to a city and then pick the owner, Washington Baseball Club stood a chance of becoming the owner only if the mayor's team won round one.
In a meeting with city officials a month earlier, Malek had set out the strategy: "You be the leaders, we'll be the troops."
They spent almost the entire Sunday helping the DC officials refine their pitch for the March 20 meeting in Phoenix.
Williams and Cropp were scheduled to fly out with some councilmembers and Federal City Council chair Terrence Golden, representing the city's business elite. On the Virginia side, Governor Mark Warner and Congressman Tom Davis had tickets to Phoenix, along with Virginia Stadium Authority director Gabe Paul.
But with an attack on Iraq imminent, the top politicians stayed close to home. The meeting took place in the Phoenix Diamondbacks' Bank One Ballpark. Mayor Williams and Governor Warner made their pitches by video and teleconference.
District officials argued against the man who wasn't in the room: Peter Angelos. They portrayed the District and Baltimore as distinct cities with separate fan bases and advertising markets.
Both groups put on slide shows of sites for new stadiums. Both showed graphs of how they would finance the parks. Both groups came away optimistic that they had convinced Reinsdorf and the other committee members that they were the best home for the Expos.
The Washington team walked from the stadium back to the Hyatt Hotel. They celebrated over dinner.
"We captured them," Bobby Goldwater said.
Still, most insiders believed the team was Virginia's to lose. The District still suffered from its reputation for fiscal mismanagement from the Marion Barry era. Virginia had legions of local officials behind the deal. It had the premium site at Arlington's Pentagon City, hard by the highways and not far from the Potomac River.
Governor Warner had packed the state's baseball authority with Arlingtonians. Charles Monroe, chair of the Arlington County Board, was a stadium supporter. But Monroe died the night he took office, and his replacement, Paul Ferguson, was not a fan of the deal.
When baseball owners passed their self-imposed deadline of the All-Star break to announce their site selection, Ferguson was fed up. "The arrogance of Major League Baseball is unbelievable," he wrote to the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority on July 18. He said Arlington was out of the deal.
Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks fired back: "We're not going to any town that doesn't want a stadium."
Governor Warner made a number of calls to Selig to assure him that Virginia still wanted a team. Warner told Bill Collins that Selig never returned his calls.
Bill Collins was devastated by Arlington's change of heart. He immediately shifted his focus west to Loudoun County, where he found developers and public officials who would welcome a stadium on land around Dulles Airport.
Politicians on both sides of the river continued to expect Major League Baseball to make a decision. MLB president Bob DuPuy said the owners would make a move "when the moon and the stars and the dollars are aligned correctly."
To get there, they would have to get through Jack Evans. The councilmember who had dreamed of bringing baseball back to DC in 1996 now chaired the finance-and-revenue committee. The mayor was selling a $339-million stadium financed by taxes and bonds. Evans wasn't buying a pig in a poke.
"I'm not moving anything relative to this out of my committee without a commitment from baseball," Evans told the Washington Times. "There is no purpose moving this ahead, raising taxes and so forth, and then having baseball say, 'Never mind.' "
At the time, Evans's wife was battling breast cancer, and he was spending a lot of time taking care of their triplets. He grew testier by the day. In June he said the owners could "take their deal and stick it where the sun don't shine."
In August, Mayor Williams told a radio audience, "I think you're already seeing some sense of anxiety and frustration."
In early January 2004, Fred Malek asked to see Tony Williams. In private.
Malek had been receiving reports that Virginia was gaining strength among baseball owners. They were comfortable with the financial backing of the state; they liked the wide-open spaces of Loudoun County, surrounded by thriving suburban communities; they figured being a few miles beyond DC would mollify Peter Angelos.
"You are harboring the assumption that Washington is the best place for the Expos," Malek said, according to Williams. "You still believe that the two-thirds/one-third formula for paying for the stadium will win the day."
Williams was used to seeing Malek's jovial side. Today Malek was very serious.
"You can do one of two things," Malek said. "Hold to that formula and say you wouldn't give in to baseball and not get the team. Or you can give them everything they want, take the criticism, but get the team.
"Basically," Malek said, "I think you have to call their bluff. Don't screw around."
Williams is by nature circumspect. He prefers to avoid confrontation and shies away from quick decisions. He pushed his chair back from the conference table in the meeting room next to his office.
"Okay, I'm ready to do it," he said.
"This is not going to be pretty," Malek replied.
In May 2004, Tony Williams invited the major-league negotiating team to Washington to hear the new financing package. They agreed to meet on May 6 in the mayor's ceremonial suite.
Jerry Reinsdorf and Tom Hicks arrived with their staff, including John McHale, Tom Ostertag, and Jonathan Mariner. Williams was accompanied by his development staff plus Linda Cropp, Jack Evans, and other councilmembers. Bill Hall was on hand.
The District team had added a new member--Mark Tuohey, an attorney with Vinson & Elkins. Tuohey had grown up in a large Irish Catholic family in Rochester, New York. His father was an FBI agent there and then the city's public-safety director. He taught his children to work for themselves and for the community. Tuohey's Jesuit teachers drove home the same message.
After law school, Tuohey came to DC as a federal prosecutor. He worked the Hanafi Muslim case in 1977 before going into private practice and raising his three sons. Ken Starr drafted him to be his chief deputy as independent council investigating the Vince Foster suicide. The DC Council drafted him to investigate police corruption in 1998. He was named DC lawyer of the year in 2001.
Still, he was surprised when a mayoral aide phoned him in late 2003 and asked if he would be interested in becoming head of the DC Sports & Entertainment Commission. Jack Evans had recommended him to Williams. Tuohey accepted.
Tuohey took over from John Richardson and Bobby Goldwater, and he bonded with the Malek ownership group, the city-council members, and the mayor. Soon Tuohey was spending so much time on baseball that Bill Hall's wife started to ask her husband, "Got a date with Tuohey tonight?"
Reinsdorf was reengaged, according to people in the negotiations. The District got his attention by presenting him with the three-thirds/no-thirds deal he had described at the first meeting in New York.
Tuohey came away thinking that Reinsdorf was ready to commit to DC. His Irish grandmother had taught him to "listen to the words in the room, but pay more attention to the music." Tuohey thought he had heard a sweet song.
Jack Evans was still worried that Peter Angelos could kill it. "Is Angelos taken care of?" he asked.
"He's out of it," Reinsdorf said, according to Evans.
At the beginning of spring training in 2004, Angelos spoke his mind to the Washington Post: "Originally when the discussion began," he said, "Washington was about the only real competing group. Now I think there are three or four. That obviously raises the potential that there won't be a team so proximate to us. . . . What I mean is, I've stopped worrying about it."
He added, "My feeling is, with all due respect to the Washington area and the groups trying to get a team, it would be an affront to the Orioles franchise, and both franchises would drive themselves financially into the ground."
Speaking in May after an owners' meeting, Bud Selig said: "If my history and experience in the sport has taught me anything, the game from time to time has done some things internally--moved a team--which affected another team. I want to learn by what I think were our sport's errors maybe in the past."
In an August interview in the Post, Angelos said, "There's no animus directed at Northern Virginia or Washington. It simply won't work."
Meanwhile, both DC and Virginia were working feverishly to reel in the Expos. While Selig and Angelos were posturing, Tuohey was talking to Jerry Reinsdorf.
In July Reinsdorf called District officials into a 12-hour negotiating session at the law offices of baseball's attorney, Rick Weiss of Foley & Lardner. They hammered out the details of a contract that could serve as a baseball-stadium agreement. There were more marathon sessions by phone and in person.
In August Tuohey and DC mayoral aide Stephen Green flew to Chicago and met with Reinsdorf for seven hours in his Cellular Field office. They narrowed their discussion down to the details of building the new stadium, such as budgets and timing.
Across the river, Bill Collins was courting major-league executives by helicopter. He had reconstituted his pitch around Dulles International Airport with a 400-acre development. It would be called Diamond Lake. Collins larded his consortium with Centex, one of the largest builders in the nation. He added former Redskins Art Monk and Charles Mann to his ownership group.
Collins brought in George Mason University professor Stephen Fuller to build a presentation casting Northern Virginia as the engine of growth and prosperity in the Washington region. Fuller created a show called "This Is Not Your Father's Virginia."
MLB executives John McHale and Tom Ostertag took in the presentation, then boarded a chopper for a tour of Virginia's high-tech corridors. They buzzed America Online.
In May, Collins with a host of state officials unveiled the Diamond Lakes home of the future Virginia baseball team. Through the summer and fall, baseball executives entered weekly and sometimes daily negotiations with Loudoun County officials with specific requirements about zoning and details of stadium construction.
Collins came away believing baseball was dealing only with Virginia. He was under the impression that Bud Selig had decided on Loudoun County and that he had dispatched two of his executives to deliver the news to Peter Angelos.
In Richmond, key lawmakers were beginning to balk at backing the bonds to pay for a baseball stadium. The state was still recovering from budget deficits. Two powerful Republicans, House speaker William J. Howell and Senate finance committee chair John H. Chichester, questioned whether the state should risk its financial well-being by financing a stadium deal. It would benefit only the Northern Virginia suburbs. Would Governor Warner be helping out his former business buddies with public funds?
In 1994, when Warner was making his fortune in the high-tech business, he had joined Collins on the ownership team. And as governor he had worked to bring a team to Virginia. He had taken Selig on a tour of the Pentagon City sites.
But when Norfolk came on as a potential home for the Expos in spring 2004, Warner was neutralized. State legislators would not stand for his advocating Northern Virginia over Norfolk. Still, in June, he talked as if he were firmly behind state-backed bonds.
As pressure mounted from the legislature to withhold the state's backing of the bonds, Warner began to wobble. "It can't fly without him," said House appropriations committee chair Vincent Callahan. "I hope he doesn't get cold feet at this 11th hour." In mid-September, Warner said Virginia would no longer back the stadium financing.
A major-league executive called Bill Collins. "Your governor sold you down the river," he said.
Warner's decision--Collins calls it a "betrayal"--tipped the scales back across the Potomac, but it did not seal the deal for DC. Collins organized an all-cash deal whereby his group would pay for the land, the stadium, and the team. He presented his proposal to Major League Baseball.
Meanwhile, baseball executives sought out alternate cities. They looked at New Jersey for a moment. George Steinbrenner shooed them away. A Connecticut site suffered the same fate. Norfolk, Las Vegas, and other potential cities were no longer in the game.
That seemed to leave Washington, DC, but Major League Baseball was mum.
"Major League Baseball is so screwed up, they probably won't give us the team anyway," Jack Evans said on WTOP-AM on September 17. "I have nothing but disrespect for the owners of Major League Baseball, to be honest with you. And if they drag this thing out any longer, they can take the team and put it in Northern Virginia, and I hope it fails."
Steve Green called Rick Weiss in the waning days of September. "You guys are showing a tremendous lack of respect for the mayor," he said.
Within the boys' club of Major League Baseball, the real lack of respect was directed toward Peter Angelos.
Selig, Reinsdorf, and Angelos would not comment for this article. No one else knows exactly what was said among these three main players. But people close to the owners describe the drama as follows.
Angelos had established a bond with Selig after he opposed the commissioner in the 1995 players' strike. In healing the rift, they talked often and found common ground. Selig had guaranteed Angelos that no team would be allowed to set up shop as close to Baltimore as Washington, DC.
But in the late summer of 2004, the owners began to see Angelos as arrogant and unwilling to negotiate.
As Angelos "pounded the table," the executives in the relocation process made the case for moving the Expos to Washington. Jerry Reinsdorf came to trust Mark Tuohey more than he did Peter Angelos. The relocation committee and MLB executives had faith in Mayor Williams and his numbers. In its report to MLB's executive committee, Reinsdorf's panel recommended moving the team to DC. The owners had turned away from Angelos.
"They saw him as a bully," says a person familiar with the owners.
Selig tried to stand by his "anywhere but Washington" position. He kept directing his staff to find a way to put the team in Virginia. If Diamond Lake, the proposed development near Dulles, looked promising, make a deal.
But there were two problems with Dulles. First, Warner refused to back the bonds; second, the developers had yet to get control of the land. "Dulles was not a secure option," says a businessman involved in the negotiations.
Still, Selig had to be forced to agree with Reinsdorf that DC was the best choice. Mets owner Fred Wilpon, Astros owner Drayton McLane, San Francisco's Peter Magowan, Tom Hicks of the Texas Rangers, and even Selig's daughter Wendy supported the Expos' relocation to Washington.
Selig was left with only one option.
The phone rang in the mayor's office at 4 PM on September 29.
"Congratulations," Bud Selig said. "It's been a long time coming."
Gathered in the mayor's office that afternoon were Linda Cropp and Jack Evans, Mark Tuohey and Bill Hall, Eric Price and Steve Green, and at least a dozen others who had played roles in winning the MLB lottery. Jerry Reinsdorf's voice came over the speaker and asked for Jack Evans. "See," he said, "we're not as bad as you think."
Williams emerged from his office. "I'm elated," he said. "Relieved. Satisfied. We put a lot of time into this, and it finally paid off."
The elation lasted about a month.
At 10 AM on November 5, council chair Cropp summoned Mayor Williams and other city leaders into a meeting. Instead of the deal Mayor Williams had struck with MLB, which had the city building a $400-million stadium on the Anacostia River, Cropp proposed a less-expensive version next to RFK Stadium.
"This is a better deal for the District of Columbia," she told reporters later that day. "The business community said they are willing to support baseball, but not at any cost."
Cropp couldn't have caused a greater commotion if she'd blown up the pitcher's mound. Changing the deal with MLB at the last minute, baseball supporters said, could cost the city the team.
There was no way around Cropp. Her role was crucial. The council had to approve the proposed business taxes to finance the stadium by December 31 or the deal was dead.
Cropp had backed baseball's return. She had attended every major meeting. She had stood shoulder to shoulder with Williams on September 29. But from the outset, she had said her support was contingent on the deal's being fair to the city. Cropp says no one disclosed to her the details of the deal until after September 29.
Still, why did the legislator known for her mild manner and collegial leadership suddenly play hardball?
Tony Williams says he "screwed up."
In October, shortly after Selig's historic call, Williams had left the country for an 11-day trip to Asia. While he was away, Cropp absorbed the brunt of opposition to the stadium from community activists who argued that DC needed better schools more than a new stadium and from business leaders who thought they would be paying too high a price in taxes with few benefits.
When Williams returned from Asia, Cropp was looking to cut the cost of the stadium any way she could. She sought private financing. She looked for cheaper sites. She searched for ways to protect the city from clauses in the deal that would penalize DC if the stadium weren't completed on time.
On December 2, Cropp sat next to Bud Selig at a luncheon hosted by the Greater Washington Board of Trade at a Dupont Circle hotel.
"Listen," Cropp says she told Selig, "let's try to work something out. I want Major League Baseball to come here. But it cannot be detrimental to our city. I cannot let it go through as is."
Selig called MLB executive John McHale to the table and asked him to speak with Cropp after the meal. McHale told Cropp that he could not negotiate with her alone because they had struck their deal with Williams and Tuohey.
Outside the hotel, Selig told reporters: "We have made a deal. Certainly, you have every right to expect that we'll live up to our end of the deal. So, you know, a deal's been made, and I'm satisfied that the deal that both sides agreed to will take place."
What then took place were intense negotiations to alter the deal to bring Linda Cropp back on the team. Cropp met with Tuohey, Williams, city administrator Robert Bobb, and Evans. She demanded that the city not have to pay a penalty if the stadium was not completed on time.
"She's right," Williams said at one point. "Why can't we do that?"
Baseball negotiators said they were willing to change some terms of the deal, and they agreed to put the new language in a letter to Cropp. It was supposed to get to her on December 14, the day of the crucial council hearing that would culminate in a vote on a reworked stadium deal.
Cropp waited all day. When the hearing began, she had not received the letter. The hearing began at noon and wore on through the afternoon and evening. Finally, at 10 PM, the letter arrived as Cropp was chairing the meeting. She read it. The changes weren't sufficient. She was livid.
At 11 PM, after 11 hours of debate in a packed council chamber, Cropp introduced a bill requiring that private financing cover half the stadium cost.
"My basic belief is that there are too many public dollars going into this," she said. "This will make the mayor seek private dollars more than anything else. I don't know how Major League Baseball will react."
Williams reacted by sending her a note: "You are killing baseball."
Cropp's bill passed. The mayor sulked. MLB balked.
An unlikely savior emerged. Jack Evans already had changed from curmudgeon to champion. Once baseball had committed to DC, Evans had moved legislation through his finance-and-revenue committee and the full council. He wasn't about to let the Expos slip away.
MLB president Bob DuPuy called Evans the next morning. "What's your take?" he asked. "We don't know who to believe anymore." The mayor had assured DuPuy he had the votes for the publicly financed deal.
"I'll get back to you," Evans told DuPuy. "Stay in your office." Evans took the elevator up to Cropp's fifth-floor office. "We have to call DuPuy right now," he told her. "We have to reassure them."
Cropp called DuPuy, opening a line of communication that would stay hot for the next five days and nights. Mark Tuohey, Tony Williams, Jerry Reinsdorf, and Jack Evans rejoined the negotiations. Cropp got MLB to share the cost of insurance for potential cost overruns; she persuaded Williams and MLB to open the financing up to private bidders. Major League Baseball still got its fully funded ball park along the Anacostia River.
On December 21 the council voted 7 to 6 to accept the new package.
"Finally and at last, all of us have risen above the fray," Williams told reporters, "and the Washington Nationals are rounding third and heading for home. Isn't that great?"
"In the end," Cropp said, "we provided a better deal. What happened in the last few weeks and months should have happened. It's a sign of good government."
Good government or not, the Washington Nationals had a home. The sports commission began readying RFK Stadium. The Nationals tuned up in spring training. Opening Day in Washington is April 14.
Northern Virginia advocate Bill Collins will be in the park.
"We accomplished our number-one goal," he says. "We wanted to bring baseball back to the Washington region. That was always our goal."
But that's not his only goal. His group, American Baseball Capital, is bidding on the new team.
No one has heard from Mr. October, Reggie Jackson, since last fall.
Baseball Team for Sale! But Will It Go to the Highest Bidder?
Major League Baseball executives, politicians, and businessmen gathered at the law offices of Baker & Hostetler for a dinner the night of the inauguration in January.
Bill Schweitzer, MLB's lobbyist and a senior partner in the firm, sat at the head of the table. With him were Jim Kimsey and Joe Robert, members of the Washington Baseball Club; MLB exec John McHale; Mark Tuohey, chair of the DC Sports & Entertainment Commission; DC Council members; and others.
Schweitzer turned to Jack Evans, chair of the council's finance-and-revenue Committee. He pointed to Eric Billings, cofounder of the investment firm Friedman Billings Ramsey. "He would be a good owner," Schweitzer said.
Billings was not a member of a group bidding for the Washington Nationals. But he had caught Schweitzer's fancy.
The operative word is "fancy." The owners of Major League Baseball will choose the new owners of the Washington Nationals based mostly on who is willing to pay the highest price, but they can also pick the group that seems to fit in best with the MLB fraternity.
The bidding process is under way, and it is secret, but some aspects have become public. The 29 MLB owners are reviewing offers from seven groups known to have paid the $100,000 required to make a bid.
The prospective owners are expected to pay in the neighborhood of $300 million. The MLB owners do not have to pick the highest bidder. If they like a group that comes within $50 million of the top number, that group could win.
The owners will be judging purchasers in four areas: solid financing, ties to the community, diversity, and compatibility.
Only the 29 owners will vote, but DC lawyer Mark Tuohey has what amounts to a consulting role at the table. As head of DC's Sports & Entertainment Commission, he worked closely with MLB in negotiating the deal that brought the Montreal Expos to town. He will continue working with MLB, the new owners, and the city.
With Fred Malek at the helm, Washington Baseball Club is the odds-on favorite. Malek was co-owner of the Texas Rangers with George W. Bush in the 1990s.
"We make no assumptions we are going to get the team," Malek says. "We will support whoever does get it."
Ironically, Malek just got W. Russell Ramsey to join his group. Once a Billings business partner, Ramsey was an early member of Bill Collins's owners group in Virginia. In February he switched and joined WBC. Billings still is not part of any prospective owners group. Collins says Malek asked him to join the DC group. He declined.
Based on research into the groups and the predilections of the current MLB owners, here is a ranking of the potential buyers:
1. Washington Baseball Club. In addition to Ramsey, general partners are Fred Malek, chair, Thayer Capital Partners; Jeff Zients, former board chair, Advisory Board Company; Franklin D. Raines, former chair, Fannie Mae; James V. Kimsey, founding chief executive officer, America Online; Joseph E. Robert Jr., chair, J.E. Robert Companies; David Bradley, chair, Atlantic Media Company; Stephen W. Porter, senior partner, Arnold & Porter; and Paul Wolff, senior partner, Williams & Connolly. Limited partners are former Washington Redskin Darrell Green; Dennis Hightower, former president, Walt Disney Television & Telecommunications; and Vernon E. Jordan Jr. of Lazard Frères & Co.
2. American Baseball Capital. The group that tried to win the team for Northern Virginia also wants to own it in DC. Led by William Collins, general partners include Harry Rhoades, cofounder, Washington Speakers Bureau; Wachovia Corporation; James Speros, president and owner, National Golf Ventures; and Mike Scanlon, president and CEO, Self Storage Association.
3. The Lerner family. Owners of a Bethesda-based real-estate empire, the Lerners are a longtime Washington family headed by Ted Lerner, who has been very private but also philanthropic over the years.
4. Stan Kasten, an Atlanta businessman and attorney with experience running pro teams in baseball, hockey, and basketball.
5. Franklin Haney Sr., a Tennessee developer and financier with business ties to Washington.
6. Jonathan Ledecky, a Washington businessman and former part owner of the Washington Capitals and MCI Center.
7. Jeffrey H. Smulyan, head of Emmis Communications, a worldwide media company. Smulyan is the former owner of the Seattle Mariners. He has suggested he might join another group. Collins's is most likely.
Then there is the Angelos factor. Just as Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos was a factor in which city got the Montreal team, he will play an oversize role in which group owns it. To compensate him for putting a team in his backyard, Angelos wants a big piece of the broadcast revenue to be shared by the Washington and Baltimore teams. If the owners give Angelos a large percentage of the media revenue, the Washington team is worth less.
"He is still in the weeds," says a member of one of the potential ownership groups. --HARRY JAFFE