Going Against The Percentages

March 30, 2008

YOU WANT to keepthinking of Washington, D.C., as a gridlocked, do-nothing town? Go ahead. Tryto ignore the fact that, this Sunday, less than two years after breakingground, the Washington Nationals will open their season in a new, 41,222-seatballpark. Just try resisting the modernist gem that's inspiring near-universaloohs for its green sensibility and piquant touches. Cherry trees dot theoutfield concourse, timed to blossom on Opening Day. The Capitol dome hoversbeyond leftfield, and the Nats' oval clubhouse pays homage to a certain WhiteHouse office. President Bush is scheduled to throw out the first pitch. It'sall going to feel so good.

Yes, commissionerBud Selig will be smiling that night, and why not? In 2004, when baseball stillowned the franchise after rescuing it from Montreal, MLB negotiated an alltimesweetheart deal. Then-mayor Anthony Williams and the city council agreed topublicly finance a new stadium—now at $674 million and counting—even though itwas widely known that baseball wanted the team in Washington. At a time whenthe civic burden for stadium construction was usually between 60% and 70%, D.C.agreed to pick up a whopping 97% of the tab.

Billionaire TedLerner will be beaming too, having purchased the franchise from MLB in 2006 for$450 million. Although he has spent "tens of millions more" in upgradesto Nationals Park, according to team president Stan Kasten, Lerner wasobligated to pay only $20 million toward original construction costs. Under theterms of his 30-year lease he will control all but 12 dates at the parkannually, in season and out, and rake in every dime from tickets, parking,concessions and signage.

And D.C.'s newgo-go mayor, Adrian Fenty, will have a grin as well, though it may look mightyforced. He can take credit for opening the ballpark on time, but as acouncilman he was a vociferous opponent of the deal, calling it"horrible." Still, the council approved the construction—funding itwith taxes on stadium revenues, nonresidential utilities and businesses withgross receipts of more than $5 million—in the hope that the ballpark wouldrevive the blighted Anacostia neighborhood the way the Verizon Center, built in1997, spurred development in Chinatown. Although Fenty, as mayor, was in fullbooster mode last week, he couldn't make completely nice. "I do think itwas a bad deal," he said.

Me? I'm a suckerfor a new ballpark. Roll out some grass and dirt and throw up a few brickwalls, add a few chaw-cheeked guys, and I'm there. When I first saw theNationals' massive new scoreboard, or that cool hydrotherapy room for theplayers? I felt like a 12-year-old boy cut loose at The Sharper Image. Biggadgets! Woo-hoo!

But as a Districtresident for eight years I'm not woo-hooing. Ballpark opponents invariably citepublic schools and libraries as a more appropriate target for publicdollars—they were at the top of councilman Fenty's list—and in no city doesthat argument resonate louder. The nation's capital has 37% adult illiteracyand a high school graduation rate of 59%; only 9% of D.C. public schoolstudents go on to graduate from college within five years.

Last week Iwalked through Anacostia High, a five-minute drive from Nationals Park, wherethe walls are peeling and garbage litters the halls. I drove past the AnacostiaLibrary, empty and surrounded by a cyclone fence. Like three other branchlibraries in the city, it has been closed since 2004; permanent replacementsaren't due before 2010. For those scoring at home, that will be three timeslonger than it took to build the ballpark. "To invest $600 million thereand say it's the best way to spark economic development seems ludicrous,"says Ed Lazere, director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. "I'm excitedthe city has a baseball team. But it makes me bitter that it's costing so much[money] that could've been used for more important things."

You want toargue? Good luck. By the time I got to the ballpark for its first game, betweenGeorge Washington and Saint Joseph's last Saturday, it was hard to rhapsodizeabout the city's shiny new monument. I kept thinking of my kids, trotting totheir overcrowded D.C. school next to a vacant lot where the library used tobe. Only one notion kept me afloat: the power of shame. After all, the D.C.library system's construction chief, Jeff Bonvechio, said that citizen outrageover the ballpark had forced the politicians to triple his budget. And Lazereinsisted that the District's 2005 decision to embark on a 10-year, $1 billionprogram to repair school infrastructure "only came about because of theguilt over the baseball stadium."

A deal so bad itmight do some good? Flimsy, I know. But we suckers have been known to fall forless.

TALK BACK
If you have a comment on Nationals Park or stadium financing, send it toPointAfter@si.timeinc.com.

At the Nationals' new ballpark, I felt like a12-year-old boy cut loose at The Sharper Image. Big gadgets! Woo-hoo! But as aneight-year District resident I'm not woo-hooing.

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY KEITH WITMER

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)