- The Washington Times - Friday, May 26, 2000

MILWAUKEE Commissioner Bud Selig, once a staunch opponent of any major league team relocating, now says he is now much more willing to accept a move, provided the club has exhausted all other options.

Selig's significant change of heart could have a direct impact on the return of major league baseball to the Washington area, deserted by the expansion Senators 29 years ago.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Washington Times on Wednesday, Selig said franchise moves soon may become necessary to help stop the massive revenue disparity between teams, which Selig calls easily the game's biggest problem.

Selig's once ironclad position against a move softened somewhat during Montreal's long search for new ownership, which ended with the arrival last fall of New York art dealer Jeffrey Loria as majority owner.

But the Expos are still struggling economically, and with Minnesota, Oakland and Florida also bleeding tens of millions in red ink each year without viable prospects for new stadiums, Selig said relocation may now be a very necessary evil.

"If a club can't make it, I can't force a club to go bankrupt that's the key," Selig said. "There's no question that if a club can't make it and demonstrates that it's tried to do everything it can, no question it has to move."

Fred Malek, head of a District-based group seeking to land a team, welcomed the commissioner's new mindset.

"I'm really pleased that he's becoming more receptive to that," Malek said. "It's best for baseball to have teams where you can generate maximum interest, and I remain absolutely convinced that this is one of those places."

William Collins, an Alexandria, Va., telecommunications executive who leads a group seeking to bring a team to Northern Virginia, was not available for comment.

Selig declined to address the specific likelihood of any particular team moving to the District or the Northern Virginia suburbs.

"I don't want to get into any of that out of respect for the existing clubs who are trying to solve their problems," he said. "We're staying in contact with people from both groups. I appreciate their interest and we'll see how things work out. We take Washington seriously. We shall see what we shall see."

Baseball is close to announcing a new revenue sharing plan designed to help smaller market clubs be competitive with large market teams like the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles, Selig said. Although that would benefit the smaller clubs, it also would put more pressure on them from the larger teams to become profitable something he thinks also could pave the way for one or more teams to relocate.

"Once you bring in revenue sharing, clubs really become related to one another," Selig said. "For 29 years, we've bent over backwards to keep teams where they are. But I do believe that if, for whatever a reason, a team can't make it in a market, and everything has been exhausted to try to keep a team there and it still doesn't work then we have to think about relocation."

Selig declined to specify the changes involved in revenue sharing but said the new measures will go much further than the current luxury tax system that takes money from high-payroll clubs and provides about $12 million each annually to the smallest of the small-market teams.

Relocation will be the only way the Washington area gets a team. Selig feels expansion is partially the reason for baseball's current offensive explosion and doesn't think the sport has a large enough talent pool to feed two more clubs.

"Given what we've talked about relative to offense and pitching, I can assure you there are zero plans for any future expansion," he said.

Earlier this year, Malek and Collins received a boost in their efforts to land a team thanks to the dissolution of the American League and National League offices. The players' union removed a clause that allowed a single owner to prevent the move of any team in the same league within 100 miles of that owner's market.

The change, first reported in The Washington Times, prevents Orioles owner Peter Angelos from blocking by himself an AL team from moving to Washington. The approval standard is now simply a three-fourths yes vote from all team owners.

Selig also defended his plan for realignment, which he hopes will be in place for next season. The plan, drafted along with Boston Red Sox chief executive John Harrington and Philadelphia Phillies president Dave Montgomery, splits baseball into three AL divisions and four NL divisions. Tampa Bay and Arizona would switch leagues, Texas would join a six-team AL Central, and the NL would lose the wild card.

A vote on the plan scheduled for next month was postponed Tuesday, which some believe indicates a lack of owner support, but Selig said that wasn't the case. Instead, he said, other alternatives are still being considered.

"What we're after is an unbalanced schedule. Teams should be playing the teams in their own a division a lot more than they are now… . Players have complained about the schedule. Managers have complained. General managers have complained," Selig said. The sentiment might be echoed by Baltimore fans who will see the Orioles travel to Oakland twice before they visit Boston.

"We're seeking to draft something once and for all that makes sense. That's the very thing we're correcting," Selig said. "The [tentative] schedule we have for next year is the best schedule I've seen in over two decades. That's what this is all really about."

Malek said the likelihood of any team coming up for sale might depend on how that realignment turns out, because he feels the financial viability of certain teams might depend greatly on who their new divisional opponents are.

"That's probably biggest thing coming up we're waiting to see shake out," he said.

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