DC Baseball In Black & White

By Conaway Haskins
Updated: December 25, 2004

RICHMOND, Va. — It looks like professional baseball is back on in the Nation’s capital now that a new deal has been struck between the D.C. city council, mayor Anthony Williams, and Major League Baseball. This news followed gloom-and-doom reports that baseball was on the verge of pulling out of Washington and exploring relocating the Expos – now named the Nationals – to a new city.

Somehow, the factions were able to work out a deal that was amenable to each, and in the end, this entire mess was all much ado about nothing.

An unfortunate element to this escapade has been the injection of the race issue into the effort, along with its companion issue, class. More than with many other U.S. cities, nearly every public issue that arises in D.C. is fraught with racial elements.

MLB’s impending move there is no different. D.C. is a Black-majority city, a magnet for young Black professionals, and it is surrounded by mostly White-majority suburbs. The city also has the misfortune of being a federal territory, and thus, it lacks basic political rights and controls that no other cities in the 50 states lack.

Having served as center for American Black life, the D.C.’s sports history includes a Negro League team (i.e., Homestead Grays, Baltimore Elite Giants, Baltimore Black Sox) and a number of prominent players, such as Hall of Fame slugger Josh Gibson, who notably spent time in the city’s historic mental hospital – St. Elizabeth’s.

Therefore, in order to fully understand what went down in this most recent incarnation of MLB in D.C., it’s necessary to look through the prism of race.

After the city council seemingly nullified the original deal that was on the table, baseball officials responded that the terms were unacceptable. City council chairwoman Linda Cropp, who initially supported the mayor but then began backing away from his deal, was vilified in and out of the city by baseball supporters, some of whom used overtly racist language – references to “jungle monkeys” and the like – to express their displeasure.

Others used more coded, but just as dangerous rhetoric. In the midst of this, Cropp gained support in many corners of the city, but for divergent reasons.

This kind of racial bickering is not new to D.C. Mayor Tony Williams has long faced criticism in the city’s poorer and Blacker sections as being out of touch with their communities. He has been taken to task by some in the local media as not being “Black enough.”

As suspect as this claim is, some local conspiracy theorists – a good portion of the city’s population – further asserted that Williams’ actions were aimed at enriching the city’s White business and political classes, the folks whom they feel put him in office.

Thinking of this nature has become the mayor’s Achilles heel despite the fact that he has successfully shepherded his adopted hometown through a dramatic physical and economic resurgence, raising the profile and enhancing the image of the entire city.

Bringing MLB back to D.C. after a 33-year absence was to be a win-win situation for Tony Williams because the stadium is to be built in the heart of heavily-Black and poor Southeast Washington. After wrangling over the location, the Mayor played his trump card and billed the new baseball facility as the centerpiece of his initiative to revitalize this long-neglected city corridor.

Last minute additions to the original baseball deal spoke to community investment and engagement as a part of the project. However, from the outset, fears that this outreach was mere lip service were confirmed by sources in D.C. government who pointed out that key players working in community development in the Southeast Washington corridor were mostly uninvolved with the baseball situation. However, those sources say that it’s “inevitable that [they] will be called in at some point.”

Other government officials who work closely with the city’s business community say that many local firms in the “city’s most affluent section[s]” are not willing to “fall over for baseball…some businesses have thought about relocating [to the suburbs] rather than shell out the business tax.

They have good reason to question the citywide tax, because the stadium in Southeast will do nothing for them in terms of increased business, ” even it is an overall good thing for the city. Media reports indicate that citizens in the more affluent and White neighborhoods are lukewarm to the entire deal, if not in outright opposition to it.

The latest council vote reflects this. It is telling that the 6 members who voted against the plan either were either White Republicans (including a former Republican who is now an independent) who serve at-large, or Black and White members representing heavily White and wealthy constituents.

The seven who voted in favor were at-large Black Democrats and their allies (White and Black) who represent districts with significant ethnic constituencies. Several council members, on both sides of the stadium issue, are purportedly angling to position themselves as candidates in the next mayoral election.

Another racial element to the equation was the criticism that the proposed $500 million-plus bond would only serve baseball and its White-dominated suburban consumer base. Cropp reported that her office was deluged with negative phone calls from the “703” and “301” area codes, referring to heavily White Fairfax County, Virginia and Montgomery County, Maryland, two of the richest municipalities in the country.

Those same suburbanites are constantly accused of coming into D.C. for play and work, but then taking their high incomes – and the subsequent taxes that those incomes generate for Virginia and Maryland – back home with them.

Residents of D.C. who opposed the original deal felt that the large public financing of the stadium project would take away available bond money from other purposes, such as education, human services and public works, for the majority Black population.

While this argument assumes that the city would eventually issue bonds for this purpose – a highly unlikely occurrence – the $500 million dollar figure was too much for many to fathom.

This is exacerbated by the vaunted “structural deficit” that D.C. faces as a result of the city taking on both state and local administrative responsibilities, unlike any other America city. Having a private investor on board would theoretically help reduce the debt burden that the city would incur for baseball.

According to sources inside D.C. government, city council took action to restore a sense of balance to the deal and better suit the city. Members felt that the mayor had given away too much to baseball, and left the city with a power imbalance. Cropp decided to pull her support for the initial deal in order to gain some leverage over baseball.

The specter of Marion Barry also factored in because the newly-reelected councilman represents the baseballs team’s home area in Southeast Washington, and he went on the record as an opponent to public funding for baseball.

Sensing this, Cropp put out a new proposal that included a requirement that the deal be funding through greater private sources for up to 50% of the costs. Baseball immediately reacted to this as a deal-breaker, but as of late, it backed down.

Sources inside the city government assert that Cropp would not “have made the proposal for 50% private financing of the stadium if she didn’t have someone already in mind.”

Apparently, the council sought to spur the kind of deal that created the MCI Arena for the Washington Bullets/Wizards NBA franchise, where team owner Abe Pollin covered a significant portion of the costs.

Some suggested that council had BET founder and current owner of the NBA Charlotte Bobcats, Bob Johnson, in mind as the private financier because “Johnson offered to finance the building of the MCI center when Abe Pollin wanted to city to finance the entire project…Although he has his hands full with the Bobcats, Linda Cropp may be trying to create a similar situation, maybe with another financier.”

Currently, there are several ownership groups bidding for the team, and this crew includes business types from Virginia, Washington and New York. Thus, an ownership group from outside of the city could emerge victorious. By forcing MLB to deal with a private stadium investor, city council is essentially hedging its bets to retain some level of control over baseball matters to D.C.-based interests.

Otherwise, if the city is on the dole for the entire stadium amount, the city could risk losing the team to another region, or Northern Virginia, in the future unless a lease that is very favorable to the city can be arranged. A private investor or group of private investors would most likely include a number of minority partners, such as Bob Johnson or the recently fired head of Fannie Mae, Franklin Raines, who is now a member of a prospective ownership group.

In the end, despite their protestations, MLB may actually benefit from the new deal in the long run. If a private investor emerges, then the city government would have to give up some of its authority over baseball matters. This means that the fortunes of the Nationals would be less subject to the ebbs and flows of local political gamesmanship.

Clearly, elected officials serve as the major source of institutional accountability for decision-making processes involving public funding through taxation or bonding. In a city like Washington, where public services are still lacking and poverty is pressing, the exercise of political leadership such as by Chairwoman Cropp is a good thing.

However, if part of this private investor matter is merely political one-upmanship between the mayor and council, or if it is geared to line the pockets of specific groups of individuals, then caution is needed by baseball and the citizenry. This kind of thing is an unseemly reality of urban politics, especially in a Black-majority city.

It would be wise for all involved to understand that when you seek to spread the benefits of this kind of project around, one important group can never be left out – the citizens. It would truly be a shame for the citizenry to be divided, Black from White, rich from poor, simply because too many people are green with envy.