Panel discusses baseball’s return

The GW community got its first taste of the new Washington Nationals when the University-sponsored Kalb Report brought team president Tony Tavares to the National Press Club Monday night.

Tavares said he expects 2.5 to 2.75 million spectators to attend games during the team’s first year of play at RFK Stadium, located in Southeast D.C. He expects attendance to grow to 3 million fans once a new stadium near the Anacostia waterfront opens.

The new stadium, which will feature two levels for seating and 70 luxury suites, is expected to cost between $440 million and $584 million. Tavares assured the audience that the stadium would be completed by 2008.

The Nationals will play their first home game at RFK Stadium on April 14 against the Arizona Diamondbacks. President Bush is expected to throw the opening pitch.

The event came a day after city officials unveiled an early rendering of a stadium along the Anacostia River that would give spectators a view of the U.S. Capitol.

The event’s other panelists -Washington Post columnist John Feinstein and National Public Radio host Scott Simon – largely avoided the controversy about the Anacostia stadium’s location and cost. The city has an estimated $279 million stadium construction budget. Several audience members questioned the panelists about the cost to taxpayers and the displacement of those who currently live in and frequent the area.

Tavares said the money for the stadium comes from an increase in sales tax and an increase in the rent paid for the land of the stadium. He said “a lot of the taxes will come from baseball-related activities” but provided little explanation for what would happen to the current residents and frequenters of the neighborhood near the stadium.

Mayor Anthony Williams, who has spent years negotiating and politicking to bring the team to D.C., was in the audience.

At the beginning of the discussion, Michael Freedman, GW’s vice president of Communications, asked the panel to “sit back, relax and play ball” at the usually serious Kalb Report, which has featured guests such as journalist Bob Woodward and Sen. Hillary Clinton in the past.

With baseball missing from the nation’s capital for 32 years, the panel discussed how Washington residents would react to finally having a team of their own once again.

Simon, a professed Chicago Cubs fanatic and author of the book, “Home and Away: Memoir of a Fan,” acknowledged that many residents already have allegiances to other teams.

“I’ll go to every Cubs game (against the Nationals),” Simon said. “I can’t say I’ll go to a Washington-Houston game,” he said. Houston and Chicago are rivals.

Feinstein agreed, saying that because area residents have gone so long without a team, “people grow up in Washington as Orioles fans.”

Tavares countered that the Nationals’ goal is to “capture the hearts and minds by winning.”

“We won’t replace the Orioles or the Cubs, but we’re happy with second best,” Tavares said.

The panel also discussed the trade earlier this month of Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa to Baltimore. It was rumored that the Nationals had a chance to acquire Sosa, who will instead play for the Orioles during the 2005 season.

Tavares said the Nationals did not pursue Sosa because his team would have had to trade four young Nationals players. Another worry was that Sosa’s star treatment would affect the other players on the team.

“If Sammy had a great year, then we wouldn’t be able to afford him for the next year,” Tavares said. “If he failed, then we’d look stupid for giving up four young players.”

Simon was happy with the outcome of the deal, saying, “We don’t need him to make a break.”

Moderator Marvin Kalb, a former host of “Meet the Press,” concluded the night by reading a quote stating that “baseball was the tonic that soothed Washington for years.”

“It’s been gone for 30 years and look at the mess we’re in now,” he said.

Feinstein agreed, joking that if baseball had been in town in 1972, Watergate may never have happened.

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