It was time to give the Washington Nationals baseball team more support than a portion of our karma. So the other day the Supervisor of Common Sense in our house and I took our grandchildren to the game.
As the Montreal Expos, this team had been the Ugly Duckling of baseball. After much negotiating, Major League Baseball ("MLB") moved the franchise to the nation's capital, which hasn't had a team in 33 years. Scarcely had the season begun than the Ugly Duckling, renamed the Nationals, turned into the winning swan.
On the day we saw them. they were true to form, winning 7-5 over Pittsburgh in a nail-biter of a game. This happened on a weekday before 37,000-plus fans. Washingtonians, despite their reputation for cool sophistication about policy and politics, turn out to be red-hot baseball fans. Every Nationals' hit, every Pirates' out, was cheered lustily. The crowd was on its collective feet for nearly all of the last two innings.
For the next couple of seasons the Nationals are to play in RFK Stadium, once the home of football's Washington Redskins. The deal between the city government and MLB calls for the former to build a grand new stadium along the riverfront, supposedly not at taxpayer expense. Instead, major local businesses are to pay a special tax. Yet business, when confronted with new taxes, usually passes them along to its customers in the form of higher prices. Various community groups, not being as dense as MLB seems to think they are, understand this and have been protesting. Some politicians, anxious to get ahead of the parade, are joining the protests. Property owners on the land to be condemned for the new stadium are fighting back.
MLB itself still owns the team, having not yet sold it to local investors. Several groups of them, with dollar signs rolling in their eyes, are bidding.
Meanwhile, back at the ball game, the Supervisor of Common Sense, once we were comfortably settled in our seats, said, "Why can't they just stay here at RFK Stadium?" Why not, indeed? The seats are comfortable. There is plenty of leg room. Sight lines are good. The aisles are wide. There are plenty of food and beverage stands and restrooms. Parking seems plentiful and getting in or out is no more difficult than at most other stadiums. Public transportation is nearby.
MLB insisted, in the negotiations with the District of Columbia government, that RFK Stadium would not do. Whatever its merits, they considered it "old" and "out of date." There was talk about the need for lavish new sky box suites (a big source of revenue to always-hungry-for-more-revenue club owners). There wasn't enough of this or that at RFK, so said the MLB poohbahs. Never mind that updating of RFK could attend to most all of the stated requirements at a small fraction of the cost of a new stadium.
"Here's a hunch," I said to the Supervisor of Common Sense. "In city after city, the taxpayers have been sweet-talked into voting for stadium bonds they would be paying off for years. The usual argument has been that the stadium would bring huge amounts of new revenue to the city -- which it rarely has. Opposition to the new stadium here will only get stronger, the longer the Nationals play at RFK."
The Supervisor replied, "Well, with all the controversy over this new stadium, it may never get built. What then? Does Major League Baseball move it somewhere else?" Under the terms of the contract with the city, MLB could do just that, but that will happen when pigs learn to fly and shrimps learn to whistle, I said.
With big, enthusiastic crowds and a winning team, Washington has the ultimate trump card: Congress. Try to take their new home team away, and the people will rise up and demand that Congress take away MLB's "crown jewel," its long-standing anti-trust immunity.
So, Go Nats! -- and just let the grandees of MLB try to push Washington around.