- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 6, 2003

The Washington area’s hopes for major league baseball in the near future suffered yet another setback yesterday when the MLB Players Association said it would be open to considering another split home schedule for the Montreal Expos.

That reversal of position, six weeks after the union bitterly said it would not approve such a slate, was followed by Expos president Tony Tavares saying, “you’re either looking at Monterrey [Mexico], Puerto Rico and Montreal” as the team’s home or homes in 2004.

MLB, soon after forming its relocation committee last November, intended to select a permanent home for the Expos for the 2004 season and beyond from among the District, Northern Virginia and Portland, Ore. But baseball has missed two self-imposed deadlines for making that decision and now appears to have given up altogether on a permanent move before next season.

“I expect a decision [next week] for 2004,” Tavares said. “Not beyond 2004.”

The Expos are playing 22 of 81 home games in San Juan, Puerto Rico, this season and began the final homestand of the San Juan games last night.

MLB executives have demanded, but failed to see full stadium financing plans, complete with heavy public sector contributions, from any of the permanent relocation candidates.

Portland has gone the farthest, recently approving $150million in state funds toward a stadium. Bids from both the District and Northern Virginia have come with demands of conditional awards of the Expos before completing site and financing work.

Since those demands were made earlier this year, many local baseball boosters have suspected that baseball was not ready to work through such a situation and would pursue another temporary solution for the Expos for 2004.

Commissioner Bud Selig has received a report from the relocation committee detailing the Expos’ options and is expected to make some sort of announcement on the team’s future within a matter of days. But, similar to Tavares’ remarks, most industry insiders expect that announcement to address only 2004 in any definitive fashion.

“There’s really been no change in our position,” said Bobby Goldwater, executive director of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission. “Our goal is to do a permanent relocation, doing so the right way and in full partnership with baseball.”

Goldwater said the District is prepared to continue seeking the Expos, even if means no hope of getting the team before 2005. Northern Virginia boosters concurred.

It was not entirely clear what has prompted the change in heart from the union to consider a split schedule. But since Gene Orza, union associate counsel, made his initial comments against another home split, MLB executives continued to say they hope the union would reconsider.

The union, by contractual right through its collective bargaining agreement with MLB, holds the right to review and approve each season’s schedule.

“The players are still not keenly interested in a split, but at least they’re willing to look at the schedule,” Orza said. “They’re not going to play 81 games in Puerto Rico. It’s 22 games in Monterrey or 22 games in Puerto Rico.”

Expos catcher and player representative Brian Schneider said the team would still prefer to play the full home schedule in one place. The split schedule and the extra travel required has been widely seen as a leading factor to the Expos falling out of the National League playoff race.

For several months, Puerto Rico had been seen as a potential front-runner to receive all or part of the Expos’ home schedule next season. Driving that opinion was the promise of further monetary guarantees from Puerto Rican promoter Antonio Munoz Jr., who paid $7million to MLB for the 22 Expos games this season, as well as Selig’s openly stated comfort level with playing there.

But in recent weeks, a late entry bid from Monterrey has impressed many within baseball. The Northern Mexico city is perhaps the most cosmopolitan and industrialized in the nation, and the bid has come with a significant but undisclosed bid of guaranteed money from businessman Carlos Bremer. The bid is also in American dollars as opposed to the weaker Mexican peso.

Tavares recently traveled to Monterrey to inspect the baseball stadium and potential player and staff housing. He said he was “pleasantly surprised,” and that he thought the city was “a viable option.”

“We continue to believe that Monterrey offers the best solution to the Expos’ immediate problems, as well as offers a sneak preview of the future of baseball, and American sports, in Monterrey,” said Eric Stern, spokesman for Bremer.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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