Nationals break ground on stadium

Updated: May 4, 2006, 4:23 PM ET
Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- From the half-dozen orange cranes, to the piles of rubble, to the shovels made from baseball bats, all the right props were present Thursday at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Washington Nationals' new ballpark.

Stadium groundbreaking.
AP Photo/Yuri GripasThe Nationals took the first step in building their 41,000-seat stadium.

So, too, were members of the group chosen 24 hours earlier to buy the Nationals from Major League Baseball. And they already have thought of possible changes to the $611 million project the city hopes will revitalize a neighborhood -- and everyone hopes will be ready for Opening Day 2008.

"It will take a great deal of work and effort to get done, but it's possible to get it done," said Theodore Lerner, leader of the new ownership group. "Generally speaking, they have a good opportunity to meet the deadline."

He should know. The 80-year-old Lerner is the area's largest private real-estate developer.

Nationals president Tony Tavares, who will be replaced by Stan Kasten once the sale is complete, is a little less optimistic.

"Everything has got to go perfectly in order for them to make that '08 date," said Tavares, who's been involved in stadium planning.

Lerner's son, Mark, said they saw the stadium plans two weeks ago and suggested "a few things off the top of our heads. ... Now that we're officially going to be the owners, we can really sit down and talk about it. We think we can add a lot of great ideas to the stadium from our experience as developers."

Neither Lerner would go into specifics. Because spending in baseball's deal with the city is fixed, any increases in the ballpark's cost would be paid by the incoming owners.

"Any changes that we suggest, I think we'll be able to get in within budget," said Mark Lerner, adding that he likes the recently built ballparks in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

With the sun shining and a jazz quartet entertaining, the Lerners and Kasten joined Mayor Anthony A. Williams, District of Columbia Council members, Nationals manager Frank Robinson and others at the site of the 41,000-seat, still-unnamed ballpark. A green banner with the words "Home Plate" and a giant arrow pointing down stood nearby.

Former Washington Senators public address announcer Charlie Brotman hosted a ceremony from a stage sitting in what eventually should be shallow right-center field. As one politician after another strode to the microphone, there was no sign of -- or reference to -- the rancor that marked months of ballpark-lease negotiations between Major League Baseball and the D.C. Council.

Those negotiations delayed the sale of the club, which Major League Baseball bought in 2002, then moved from Montreal to Washington before the 2005 season.

The stadium is being built near the west bank of the Anacostia River, a rundown part of town about a mile south of the Capitol. The start of Williams' remarks was partially drowned out by a handful of people chanting, "Feed the needy, not the greedy!" until they were escorted away.

"This is a little dusty now, but imagine this place in a few years," Williams said. "This ballpark really is about bringing life, vitality -- it's really about the rebirth of the Anacostia waterfront. The location here on the waterfront really will be the anchor for developing hundreds of acres."

Echoing that theme, council chair Linda Cropp said: "It will be a foundation for a better D.C., for more jobs, for more economic development."

It was Cropp, now a mayoral candidate, who in 2004 proposed switching the site of the stadium, saying she was willing to risk losing the team if baseball did not accept changes to the deal bringing the sport to the nation's capital.

Among those participating in the symbolic sand-shoveling were Nationals players Brian Schneider and Marlon Anderson.

"It feels like a reward. We are less than two years away from getting a ballpark. We have a new owner," Schneider said. "I think everybody in the clubhouse and even in the city was rewarded today."

The $450 million sale of the team will be voted on by the other major league owners when they meet May 17-18. The Rev. Al Sharpton said Thursday he is considering attending those meetings "to press the case as to when, and how, the color line in baseball franchise ownership will be broken."

"If there ever was an opportunity to celebrate black ownership in baseball, it was this opportunity in a city that is 67 percent black," Sharpton said in a statement.

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press