MLB halts promotional, marketing and sales operations

WASHINGTON -- For a team that has suspended much of its operations, the Washington Nationals were a brisk source of commerce Thursday -- at least in sporting goods stores.

Caps in pink, red and blue and other Nationals merchandise accounted for an above-average take of about $3,000 at City Sports, where customers hedged their bets over whether their haul might someday be valuable.

"I think it's a good souvenir in case the team goes the way of the Edsel," said Brent Miller of Arlington, Va., who bought two hats bearing the team's curly "W" insignia.

It was a day of mixed feelings for baseball fans in the nation's capital as they digested the complicated financial permutations of the week's news.

For three months, there has been the promise that they would have a major-league team to call their own for the first time since 1971. Now the dream is on hold following the District of Columbia Council's demand that taxpayers pay no more
than half the cost of a new ballpark.

"It would be great to have a D.C. baseball team, but we shouldn't have to go into debt," said Greg Kats, an energy and environment consultant from northwest Washington. "And our schools shouldn't have to suffer. We shouldn't have lead in our water. The Metro should not suffer."

It's a dilemma that has beset Mayor Anthony A. Williams since his celebratory September news conference announcing that the Expos would relocate from Montreal to Washington. Citizens say they want a team, but they question whether baseball was asking the city to foot too much of the bill.

"When I heard the details of it, that those baseball owners were ripping the city off -- I mean really ripping the city off -- I said I wonder if it's really worth it," said Robert Pinco, a 61-year-old lawyer who used to skip class to attend Senators games while a student at Georgetown.

"I think it would be really good for the city to have baseball," Pinco added. "I'd like to see it happen. But I don't know if it'd be good under these conditions."

Enough council members apparently felt the same way. Their vote Tuesday night to require 50 percent private financing was a rebuke to baseball, which had insisted any new ballpark be fully financed with taxpayer money up front.

Baseball's response was to halt promotional, marketing and sales operations. The official team store was closed Wednesday night. Tickets are no longer for sale and refunds are being offered. There's a Dec. 31 deadline to resolve the dispute. For the team's employees, life is suddenly a waiting game.

Activity was slow Thursday in the team's temporary offices, with special assistant Kevin Uhlich using the time to catch up on paperwork. Normally he would be planning for a scheduled meeting Friday with the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, but it is one of many that have been canceled.

The team's Web site offered a story titled "Future on Hold for Nationals" and gave instructions as to how to apply for refunds of season-ticket deposits. As of mid-afternoon, 156 refunds had been requested, representing less than 1 percent of the 16,000-plus $300 deposits received since sales began a month ago.

The team has hired and is training 19 employees, mostly in sales and marketing, and they will remain on the payroll for now. Plans to hire 15 to 20 more are on hold.

Baseball announced Thursday that the team's "baseball operations will proceed," meaning that general manager Jim Bowden will continue to put together a roster for Opening Day -- wherever the team ends up. However, the chances of any significant signing -- a badly needed starting pitcher, for example -- have waned because the team's revenue stream is again uncertain.

Bowden declined comment Thursday, but team president Tony Tavares said there were no signings imminent this week anyway.

"Are we being more cautious? Yes," Tavares said.