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03/31/08 12:30 AM ET
Selig era welcomes another new park
Nationals Park marks 21st new or rebuilt stadium during tenure
By Barry M. Bloom / MLB.com
WASHINGTON -- When Commissioner Bud Selig's tenure is done -- perhaps at the end of his contract in 2012 or even beyond -- one of the hallmarks of his career is going to be the plethora of ballparks that have sprouted up across the Major League Baseball landscape.
"Cathedrals," as he called them on Sunday night.
Perhaps the most hard-fought of the lot is now open on the banks of the Anacostia River. The new $611 million Nationals Park is the result of two years of intense negotiations on the part of MLB and 22 months of hard-driving construction to get it ready in time for the start of the 2008 season.
"It was worth it," Selig said on Sunday night during the course of a game the Nationals won, 3-2, over the Braves on Ryan Zimmerman's storybook walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth. "It's always worth it in the end, sure. Look, nobody ever said that life is easy. Nobody ever said that some of these processes were ever easy. You can look back in retrospect and say there were a lot of difficulties, but here we are."
What began on Feb. 15, 2002, when Major League Baseball purchased the moribund Montreal Expos from Jeffrey Loria and his group of minority partners for $120 million and began the relocation process, is now utterly complete.
After the District City Council finally agreed to apportion most of the funds for the stadium in the wee hours of a crucial hearing, cinching the deal, the team was moved from Montreal and played its first home game under the moniker of the Nationals at RFK Stadium on April 14, 2005, bridging a D.C. baseball gap of 34 years.
It took another year of bidding for MLB to sell the franchise to the Lerner family, which purchased it for $450 million. By then, the construction on the ballpark had begun and the real-estate family stepped in to oversee the building process, which is all but complete, except for the final touches.
"It really took a huge push at the end to get this all done, but it did get done, and we couldn't be happier with how this came out," said Mark Lerner, one of the team's principal owners and the son of Ted Lerner, the managing principal owner.
Selig couldn't have agreed more. He said he walked the ballpark from top to bottom, eyeing the gleaming dome of the U.S. Capitol building from the far reaches of the upper deck behind home plate.
"When I use the word 'cathedral,' I only use it when the park deserves it," he said. "And this is a fabulous stadium. There's no detail that they have forgotten. It's really remarkable. Talking to Mark Lerner, who I know put his heart and soul into this thing, and [team president] Stan Kasten, they've done a great job. It's beautiful. It's beautiful on the inside and on the outside."
The wave of new ballparks began in 1989 with the opening of what was then called SkyDome, Toronto's flip-top-roofed dome now known as Rogers Centre. And aside from U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago and Baltimore's Camden Yards, all 21 ballparks that have been built or seriously renovated since then have come under the watch of Selig, who was named interim Commissioner in September 1992.
And that's not including the two new yards that will open in New York next year, another in St. Petersburg that's on the drawing board, plus the renovation of Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City.
Like Nationals Park, some of the projected construction in Minneapolis, Oakland and Miami wouldn't have happened without the intervention of Selig and his staff.
"When you think about the renaissance of the sport -- and it clearly is that -- one of the things that people don't emphasize enough is the new ballparks," Selig said. "They're so good. This [Nationals ownership] group was lucky because they had 20 parks to study. They learned their lesson well and they used their time extremely well. I haven't seen anything from top to bottom that I don't like. This park is unique."
As far as taking credit for the ballpark part of baseball's renaissance, though, Selig demurred.
"I'll let the rest of you do that -- or not -- as the case may be," he said.