- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 22, 2001

Varied parties working to return Major League Baseball to the Washington area universally see the $700million sale of the Boston Red Sox by far a record for the sport as a positive development for their cause. MLB officials, however, see the issue much differently, sending yet another downbeat note to the area's 30-year quest for a team.

The sale of the Red Sox to a group led by current Florida Marlins owner John Henry likely will set off a chain reaction that will free up the Marlins for Montreal owner Jeffrey Loria, who is near a deal to buy the similarly struggling Florida franchise, in turn placing the Expos in limbo.

MLB wants to eliminate two clubs, likely the Expos and Minnesota Twins, before the start of next season. The two local bidding groups want instead to move the Expos to the area, where they have divergent views on the club's final placement.

But Robert DuPuy, MLB executive vice president and chief legal officer, said the sale plays no meaningful role in either baseball's embattled bid for contraction or Washington's push for relocation.

"John Henry buying the Red Sox is of absolutely no significance vis-a-vis contraction or anything related to that," DuPuy said yesterday. "It doesn't make Florida more or less likely to be contracted. It doesn't factor into anything else at all, really."

Henry, however, will need to divest his Marlins interest before the Boston sale closes to comply with a league ban on multiple team ownership.

DuPuy's comments echo those of commissioner Bud Selig, who has insisted repeatedly that relocating a team will not help baseball until its troubled economic system is meaningfully addressed.

But the Red Sox sale raises a critical question for baseball: What happens to the Expos if the Loria purchase in Florida is completed but contraction is not? The contraction effort has been hamstrung greatly by a players union grievance and a stadium lawsuit in Minnesota, and Selig's intent to complete the process for the 2002 season stands in significant doubt.

Seeking to help alleviate that unrest, the two local bidding groups have actively campaigned to baseball their view that a local franchise would be far more lucrative for all parties concerned than a lame-duck Montreal franchise or one there that is league-operated.

"If we get to that point, we'll deal with that then. We're dealing with all of this as it comes along," DuPuy said.

The Red Sox sale, likely to be approved during an owners' meeting next month in Phoenix, is the latest event in one of the most frenetic two-month periods in the Washington area's bid for baseball. In late October, Virginia's congressional delegation wrote Selig expressing support for an Arlington stadium that would serve as a memorial to the victims of September11.

Then came the 28-2 vote by the club owners Nov.6 to contract two teams before next season and a subsequent rash of attempts to stop it, including congressional legislation targeting baseball's antitrust exemption, the stadium lawsuit in Minnesota and players union grievance. Each of those efforts is still pending, and the Expos have yet to release a 2002 schedule.

Earlier this week, the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission made significant progress on a deal with District financier Fred Malek, leader of the downtown-based baseball effort, for exclusive rights to the temporary use of RFK Stadium. The accord could hamper a Northern Virginia-based effort from similarly using RFK short-term if that group lands a franchise.

But even Malek conceded all the activity has not changed Selig's firm stance on relocation, and in turn, has not given him any additional hope for baseball in Washington, at least in the short term.

"Hope springs eternal, but we're still in the same place," Malek said. "I don't even have firm assurances that Loria is going to buy the Marlins. If that happens, this is all a plus, an avenue, no doubt. But I'm not sure we're any closer to getting 'the call.'"

Senior baseball officials, however, have conceded privately a failing on their part to manage expectations in greater Washington. Every minor development within baseball or locally on the subject has led many to believe MLB will place a team here imminently.

"It's been hard because there has been so much attention and energy around the fates of these franchises," said one senior baseball official speaking on the condition of anonymity. "We have not communicated, I think, well enough that contraction is one part of a very long effort in which Boston doesn't really factor."

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