- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2003

The heads of the two groups fighting for the right to bring baseball to the area said they believe major league officials will not stop a team from relocating to the Washington area because of the presence of the Baltimore Orioles.

Michael Frey, a Fairfax County supervisor and chairman of the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority, and John Richardson, chairman of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, said they are convinced the nearby presence of the Baltimore Orioles will not be a deal breaker in baseball's decision to relocate the Montreal Expos.

"I believe they would not bring us this far through the process if the Orioles were a deal breaker," said Frey, who along with Richardson will be in Phoenix today and tomorrow to make their pitches to Major League Baseball. "They would not have asked us to spend all this time and money. I honestly believe that if they had no intention of allowing a franchise here, they wouldn't let this go as far as it has."

Leaders from both sides of the Potomac District Mayor Anthony Williams and Virginia Gov. Mark Warner have put a significant amount of political capital on the line in support of public financing for a ballpark. Virginia faces a $6 billion budget deficit, and critics question the District's desire to build a ballpark when the city's schools and hospitals are struggling financially.

In addition to the respective political risks, thousands of dollars have been spent on studies and plans, all geared toward presenting baseball officials with an attractive stadium financing package to move the Montreal Expos to the area. Currently, the club is owned and operated by the other 29 major league owners.

Orioles owner Peter Angelos adamantly opposes having another MLB team in the Baltimore/Washington corridor. Privately, baseball officials fear that Angelos, a highly successful trial attorney, will file suit to stop a franchise from moving into what he believes is his market.

Commissioner Bud Selig has said he is sensitive to protecting the territories and rights of existing franchises. Under baseball's rules, Angelos has no veto over a franchise's move to the Washington area. However, when it came to union negotiations in the mid-1990s, the Baltimore owner transformed from a dove to a labor hawk and consequently became a close ally of Selig last year during the most recent threat of a players strike. That fueled speculation about a secret agreement between the commissioner's office and the Orioles to keep baseball out of the Washington area.

But Richardson who will accompany the District delegation for today's meeting with baseball's relocation committee believes like Frey that the process shows the Orioles will not stop a move by baseball to the Washington area.

"I don't think that Baltimore is a deal breaker," he said. "It is an issue, and certainly something that baseball has to deal with. But they would not have us do all of this if it was a deal breaker."

Prospective Virginia team owner Bill Collins has said in nearly nine years of dealings with MLB, paying a fee to Angelos to indemnify him against potential losses has never been discussed.

The District will present a plan that will include $275 million about two-thirds of the cost of a ballpark in public financing for the stadium. The money would be raised through taxes on players salaries, a k a a jock tax; a ballpark-related sales tax; and a gross receipts tax assessed on large D.C. businesses. Both the jock tax and gross receipts tax would require the enactment of legislative measures.

The Virginia proposal, to be presented tomorrow, will include a financing plan already approved by the General Assembly. It calls for $10.5 million annually for a bond to raise $150 million, also paid for by taxes generated by the ballpark in sales and income. Officials also are expected to present a new component of their financing plan: a tourism tax that will close the gap to pay for a ballpark.

The commonwealth long has held significant bonding authority to help fund a ballpark, but any repayment plan would still require approval from the General Assembly. That body is out of session for the year and likely would be called back for emergency session only if Virginia gets a team.

Both proposals call for about one-third of the stadium costs to be paid by the franchise owners.

District officials are scheduled to meet with the relocation committee this afternoon at Bank One Ballpark. However, Williams, who was supposed to head the delegation, and D.C. Council Chairwoman Linda Cropp canceled their trips because of the impending war in Iraq.

Those who will attend include Richardson, Harold Brazil, chairman of the D.C. City Council's economic development committee; Eric Price, deputy mayor for planning and economic development; Steve Green, special assistant in the city's department of planning and economic development; Andy Altman, city director of planning; Bobby Goldwater, D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission executive director; commission member Bill Hall; and several District businessmen.

Yesterday Warner also decided to skip the trip to Phoenix. It was not clear if Rep. Tom Davis of Northern Virginia would go to Arizona as planned. The Northern Virginia group will include Gabe Paul, stadium authority executive director, and several consultants.

The only other competition for relocation is Portland, Ore., and its representatives were scheduled to meet with the relocation committee this morning. Their proposed financing plan by an Indian tribe operating a casino has met opposition from Gov. Ted Kulongoski and is not likely to be approved by MLB.

The favored sites for the District ballpark are near the intersection of New York and Florida avenues NE; and M Street SE, near the waterfront. In Virginia, officials have to yet publicly discuss proposed sites, but The Washington Times reported last month that two sites in Pentagon City were being actively considered. Several others likely will be discussed in Phoenix, but baseball boosters concede going much farther out into Northern Virginia with a ballpark is extremely problematic.

If the District or Northern Virginia is selected, the team would have to play at 42-year-old RFK Stadium for at least three years before a ballpark could be completed.

Once baseball determines who has the best financing plan, it will select the Expos' new owner. There are four potential ownership groups that could be in the mix to purchase the Expos: The Washington Baseball Club, led by Washington financier Fred Malek; Virginia Baseball, headed by Collins; Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson, though his interest is falling due to proposed stadium financing and franchise costs; and Long Island real estate developer Mark Broxmeyer. Others are expected to surface if baseball decides to relocate the Expos to the Washington area.

Staff writer Eric Fisher contributed to this report.

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