- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 5, 2000

NEW YORK Major League Baseball lawyers have determined that the Baltimore Orioles have no legal grounds on which to block a team from moving to the Washington area, The Washington Times has learned.

The lawyers have found nothing in baseball's rules that would allow Orioles owner Peter Angelos to prevent such a move, according to several sources, including ones at baseball's New York offices.

Major League Baseball has been researching the issue a study was ordered this spring in anticipation that a franchise might relocate to the area. In addition commissioner Bud Selig told The Washington Times recently that he is no longer adamantly opposed to a baseball franchise moving.

"We have had lawyers looking for several months, trying to figure out what approach Angelos would take," said a league source. The source said they have looked hard but haven't found anything that Angelos could use in court to thwart a move.

The development represents a major hurdle cleared in the effort to bring a team to Washington, which has been without baseball since the Senators bolted for Texas after the 1971 season. If Angelos has no legal standing to block a move, putting a team in Washington or Northern Virginia would require nothing more than approval of three-fourths of the major league owners.

The Montreal Expos are the leading contender to be relocated. New York art dealer Jeffrey Loria, the Expos' controlling partner, is expected to buy out the minority partners of that troubled franchise this month. Loria has been silent about his plans for the franchise. But the Expos' remaining investors expect him to relocate the club, which has seen its attendance plummet in recent years.

The Florida Marlins, Minnesota Twins, Oakland Athletics and perhaps the San Diego Padres could be candidates for relocation, pending resolution of ownership and stadium issues.

Two local groups are trying to bring a team to the area. Telecommunications executive Bill Collins heads a group that wants to put a team in Northern Virginia. Washington financier Fred Malek leads a group of deep-pocket investors who want to put a team in the District.

Angelos, a powerful and successful Baltimore litigation lawyer, says that putting a team in Northern Virginia or Washington would severely impact the Orioles at the gate. Angelos says the Orioles draw between 20 and 25 percent of their attendance from the Washington area.

When Camden Yards, the Orioles' stylish stadium, was built in the early 1990s, it was put on the southern edge of Baltimore to make Orioles games more accessible to Washingtonians.

Angelos has a history of burying the league office with legal briefs on less substantive issues, the league source said, and baseball's research was made in anticipation of a mountain of paperwork from Angelos if a team is allowed to move.

"He will make a lot of noise. We expect that," said the source. "That's why we wanted to be ready. But it looks like he can file as many briefs as he wants, but it won't hold up in court."

The crux of Angelos' claim is expected to center on how a team in the Washington area would hurt his bottom line and how he bought the Orioles with the expectation that he would have exclusive rights to the Washington market.

Legal analysts say that claim would be difficult to prove.

"For him to have such a claim, he would have to show, in writing, that when he bought the club, he was promised rights to the Washington area," said Bill MacLeod, a former director of the bureau of competition at the Federal Trade Commission.

Baseball sources say no such promise was made.

"That you will make less of a profit is not a good enough claim. You don't have the right to make a profit," said MacLeod, now a senior partner at the District of Columbia law firm of Collier, Shannon, Scott.

"His best argument will be to show that not putting a team here is in the best interest of baseball. But that will be tough if baseball approves it, because the owners will be presuming to be acting in the best interest of the game. If a team in Montreal or Minnesota isn't profitable but moving it to Washington or Charlotte or wherever makes it profitable, then that move is in the best interest of the game. The burden to prove that will be on him."

Legal experts say Angelos, who made his fortune winning settlements of class-action lawsuits against the asbestos industry, could end up as a defendant if he blocks relocation.

"If he blocks a move, he could be sued for restraint of trade, either by the team trying to move, by groups in the market trying to get a team or even by baseball," said Layne Kruse, a sports and antitrust lawyer with the Houston firm of Fulbright & Jaworski. "That's what happened with the Raiders when the NFL tried to block their move from Oakland to [Los Angeles]. The courts ruled that blocking that move would be a restraint of trade and at the time L.A. had another team."

Baseball has long enjoyed an antitrust exemption that allows it to operate outside of most trade laws, and such a case could put that exemption to the test.

"If [Angelos] is looking like he's taking advantage of the exemption to block a move, that could lead Congress to put the exemption under a closer microscope and consider revoking it and that's the last thing baseball wants," said Kruse. "Angelos will not be popular with his fellow owners if he does anything that jeopardizes the exemption."

According to the Federal Election Commission, Angelos has donated more than $1.2 million to Democratic candidates over the past five years, so he is anything but popular among congressional Republicans who might be reviewing the anti-trust exemption. Further, Malek was a minority owner of the Texas Rangers when GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush was president of that club.

"It's not hard to imagine all that being a factor," said Kruse. "The Orioles could be in an uphill battle if they try to fight this."

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