Were it not for former DC mayor Anthony Williams, there might not be baseball in Washington, meaning no winningest record in the National League, no NL East title, and no Jayson Werth walkoff homer in game four, tying up the five-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals. Williams’s connection to bringing baseball to Washington makes this a particularly poignant moment for him.
“Tom Boswell had it right today,” he says of the Washington Post sportswriter whose opening sentence in Friday’s paper was: “That was the first real baseball game played in Washington in my lifetime,” referring to the 2-1 ninth-inning victory over the Cards. “It’s a historic baseball day for Washington.”
Williams well remembers 2004, when it was announced by Major League Baseball that the Montreal Expos would move to Washington and the battle began to get approval for a Washington stadium, a battle that was contentious both in the DC City Council and with MLB. None of it went easily, and only the determination of Williams and a group of allies inside and outside the city government kept the struggle going until early 2006, when financial agreements were nailed down, a cap of $611 million in public financing was set for construction of the stadium, and the MLB signed a lease for what would be Nats Park. In the interim, the team played at RFK Stadium.
“It was an uphill slog all the way,” says Williams. “I’d say, ‘People, we’re gonna get there,’ but there were a lot of naysayers. We had to convince Major League Baseball, we had to get everyone to work together as a region, and we had to convince the city it was a worthwhile investment. We always believed DC was a different economy, that it could support a team, and it has turned out that way.”
The former two-term mayor, who left office in 2007, said that once the deals were done and the team was bought by Ted Lerner, he had high hopes, especially when Lerner hired Stan Kasten as team president, importing him from Atlanta, where he’d worked with Ted Turner as president of the Atlanta Braves as well as earlier runs as president of the city’s hockey and basketball teams. Kasten stayed with the Nationals for five years and is now president of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“I knew we would get this far when the Lerners hired Stan Kasten,” says Williams. “I knew they were prepared to build a big franchise. And now we have Davey Johnson. I knew we would get to a great place, I just didn’t think it would be this quick.”
Williams, now the CEO and executive director of the Federal City Council, agrees the modern era of baseball in Washington will be part of his legacy. “If you follow this from the beginning, from when we took over the city to now, it is night and day. There are still huge challenges, absolutely. But we’ve gone light years.” He says the key to making baseball work was bringing “some of the fundamentals back to the city, like livability. We never could have gotten a team here the way we were 15 or 20 years ago.”
Williams and his wife, Diane, have season tickets and go to as many games as possible—including the night the team won the NL East title and the first game of the playoff series, in which the Nats got trounced by St. Louis 8-0. He’s disappointed he missed Thursday’s game, with the exciting Werth home run, but he had committed to a speech. They’ll also miss being in the stadium for game five this evening, due to an equally important obligation: babysitting their two-year-old granddaughter, Naiya Garrett. “She’s a big Nats fan,” he says—so if she’s not sleeping they’ll all be in front of the television watching the game in their Nats gear.