- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 2, 2000

Minor league baseball owner Mike Veeck and the independent Northern League, frustrated by failing efforts to place a team in RFK Stadium, are now seeking to build a ballpark in the District of Columbia.

Discussions among Veeck, his partners and the Northern League remain preliminary, but Veeck intends to meet with District officials this week to press the matter. The preferred site is a parcel owned by local developer Conrad Cafritz near the Washington Navy Yard in Southeast. The area is undergoing something of a revitalization as the Navy Yard itself is beginning a $200 million redevelopment.

Early plans call for a stadium seating about 10,000 and likely featuring some of the old-fashioned iron and brickwork popularized by Camden Yards and now common among minor league stadiums. The earliest any stadium would open is April 2002, and cost estimates have hovered around $20 million.

"We've looked a lot into this and have gotten a lot of positive response from those we've approached so far," said Van Schley, owner of the Northern League's Catskill (N.Y.) Cougars, who would move his team to the District in the venture and partner in a stadium. "Now we have to see how we can make this more concrete."

The Northern League, which held its All-Star Game last night in New Jersey, is a 16-team independent operation where former major leaguers are as common as up-and-comers. The league best known for the St. Paul Saints, with whom Darryl Strawberry and former big league stars have played set a league attendance record last year.

The league's independent status would remove the need for approval from Major League Baseball or Orioles owner Peter Angelos to bring in a team. Angelos has been highly outspoken against a major league team moving to Washington.

Negotiations between Veeck's group and the D.C. Sports Commission, operators of RFK Stadium, started promisingly in March but then quickly deteriorated. The Sports Commission says a plan for 10,000 spectators a game paying no more than $7 per ticket would be economically unfeasible for the 56,692-seat facility.

"We told them that the numbers in their initial proposal would not work," said commission chairman John Richardson. "It wasn't close."

Veeck's group says that determination cannot be fully made until the commission provides it with cost estimates for operating the stadium, as promised. Commission officials deny such a promise was ever made.

"The problem right now is that in town, RFK Stadium is the only place to play a game," said Pat Malone, Veeck's District-based representative. "But it's way too large a facility for our needs. D.C. United feels the same way."

Veeck and his partners, who include actor Bill Murray and singer Jimmy Buffett, do not intend for a Northern League team to compete against or prevent a major league team from moving to Washington. Rather, when the intention was to play at RFK Stadium, Veeck said he would move the team out if a major league team was on its way to Washington.

But if a stadium is built, the group would likely try to coexist with the big-league club as a low-cost alternative. New York City, with two major league teams, also has five minor league clubs in the area.

"There's a team in Bowie, there's a team in Frederick, there's a team in Northern Virginia," said Northern League commissioner Miles Wolff. "The market that is not being served is the District."

Veeck is the son of the late Bill Veeck, a legendarily flamboyant executive who owned the Cleveland Indians, the old St. Louis Browns and the Chicago White Sox twice. The younger Veeck has kept his father's spirit alive with marketing gimmicks such as ball-fetching pigs and a failed attempt to give free vasectomies on Father's Day. Veeck owns pieces of five minor league teams, both within the Northern League and the MLB-affiliated National Association of Professional Baseball Clubs.

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