- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 15, 2001

There are so many different scenarios and components involving the future of major league baseball in the Washington area that it's difficult to determine what to pay attention to and what to dismiss.

But I told you several weeks ago that it would be worthwhile to keep your eye on a former Washington power broker and his activities because they could have an impact on how and when baseball returns here.

Follow the bouncing Larry, I said, referring to Larry Lucchino, the former Washington lawyer and Baltimore Orioles president who resigned from the San Diego Padres several months ago. He was all over the place advising Florida Marlins owner John Henry on stadium issues, looking at the possibility of buying the Anaheim Angels and most recently leading a group of investors seeking to buy the Boston Red Sox.

Pay close attention to the sale of the Red Sox because it could have a direct impact on the baseball scene here. In Boston, to the winner goes the spoils. The losers may wind up as players for a franchise in the area.

There are five groups bidding for the Red Sox, and a decision on the winner could come this week. One of the bidders is a group with Lucchino and John Henry, who, in the chaos that has seemingly taken over the game, is selling his Marlins franchise to Montreal Expos owner Jeffrey Loria.

It had been reported for weeks that the Lucchino group, with former Padres owner Tom Werner as the primary investor, had the inside track to buy the team, with the backing of commissioner Cadillac Bud Selig. But according to a Boston Herald report, the Lucchino-Henry-Werner group may be falling behind in the battle royal to buy the Red Sox, and two other bidders cable television boss Charles Dolan and a group of Boston businessmen led by Steve Karp and Joe O'Donnell are the bidding finalists.

Now, that could change tomorrow. The situation in baseball is so fluid and frenzied that anything is possible. But all reports indicate that it will be difficult for sellers to ignore Dolan's record-setting $655 million bid for the entire team.

If Lucchino falls short in Boston, it is likely he could resurface here with John Henry and others in tow if and when baseball determines it is ready to relocate a franchise here.

Up to now, we have always concluded that it would be a two-group battle for a Washington area franchise between the Bill Collins group, which wants to put a team in Northern Virginia, and the Fred Malek group, which wants the franchise in the District.

But there could be others. New York attorney Mile Prentice failed to buy the Kansas City Royals but has resurfaced as a bidder for the Red Sox, this time with a powerful media outfit behind him that includes such investors as Barry Diller. He wants to buy a baseball team. If his bid in Boston fails, the Washington area could be an option.

And Lucchino and Henry may wind up as another group or create a partnership with the Malek group. Paul Wolff, Lucchino's law partner at Williams and Connolly, is a member of the Malek group, which has made it clear that its goal is a team for the District and who owns it is not a primary concern.

Where does that leave the Collins group? It has the exclusive negotiating rights with the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority in an annual renewable agreement. Collins and his people are the ones who have paved the way since 1994 for baseball to look at the Washington area in a different light than owners had in the past, and that sales pitch has been for a franchise in Northern Virginia. They have done a good job of convincing owners that Northern Virginia is the land of milk and honey, and that a franchise there would not have as big an impact on the Orioles as a District-based team would.

Whether true or not, owners have heard that pitch over and over again, from the 1995 expansion process to the aborted sale of the Houston Astros to the Collins group that same year and since then. And if you are Orioles owner Peter Angelos and you can read the writing on the wall, where would you rather have your competition? On which side of the Potomac?

The fact is that both the District and Northern Virginia have numerous unanswered questions, from ballpark financing to site location. Plus, there are the numerous questions about franchise relocation. If Loria purchases the Marlins, will the Expos operate under the ownership of Major League Baseball for one year, with the franchise put up for bid after that? Will it operate in Montreal or in Washington at RFK Stadium?

There is no way baseball could operate the Expos in Washington for just one year. If it moves the franchise here, it will have to stay here. To do a one-year trial run would be a disaster. Plus, the players union is dead set against baseball running a franchise. And finally, there might not even be a 2002 season if the labor tension between owners and players continues to rise.

Before it is all over, there could be a host of new players involved in the bid for baseball in the Washington area. It could be another Wild West board room shootout like Boston.

To be so coveted would be the final irony for a place that baseball has deemed unsuitable for its bankrupt game for the last 30 years.

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