- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 24, 2001

Washington's fruitless 30-year pursuit to replace the twice-departed Senators is getting some additional teeth.

Both of the area's groups seeking to bring in a baseball team have expressed to Major League Baseball in recent weeks their growing frustration over their long wait, according to several high-ranking industry sources. And they may join or start lawsuits against baseball if the league opts to contract some teams instead of relocating one to greater Washington. Additionally, congressional sources indicate several lawmakers again are mulling a review of the game's cherished antitrust exemption should folding clubs become reality.

Commissioner Bud Selig has considered for nearly a year shrinking the roster of franchises to address the game's fast-growing economic and competitive disparity, and talk of such a move again has picked up steam this month, in part fueled by Selig himself.

"[Contraction] is unquestionably today a viable option," Selig told the Toronto Globe and Mail. "We have a lot of very significant problems that a lot of people don't seem to understand, but they're there and they're going to need some really tough solutions."

The Montreal Expos, who drew just 7,648 fans a game this year, Florida Marlins and Tampa Bay Devil Rays would be the most likely targets for contraction. The topic is expected to be addressed formally during owners meetings tentatively set for early next month in Chicago.

Representatives for William Collins, a Northern Virginia technology executive who leads a bidding group there, declined to comment directly on the potential of a lawsuit against baseball. District financier Fred Malek, who leads the other group, said he has no plans to pursue any legal action. But both met recently with Corey Busch, Selig's point man on relocation who is studying several potential markets for baseball. And according to several baseball insiders, the groups conveyed in plain, tough terms their desire for clarity on the game's plans for franchise management and a wish for baseball to steer away from contraction at all costs.

"As businessmen, we simply cannot comprehend why baseball would [consider contraction]," said Mike Scanlon, spokesman for the Collins-led Virginia Baseball Club.

Demographic studies indicate Washington is by far the largest and wealthiest U.S. city without a major league team, and independent studies estimate a local team easily would draw in excess of 35,000 fans a game more than double the Expos, Marlins and Devil Rays.

"I've the seen the recent reports [about contraction]. I don't know if they're true," Malek said. "But if it ever did happen, it would be such a shame. The cost of buying out a franchise would instead be paid by us to move it to a vibrant market that is by far the best not currently served by baseball."

While moving a struggling club like the Expos to a more suitable city may seem simple enough, the issue is tied in with pending negotiations with the players union over a new labor contract and Selig's desire to construct a new economic system for baseball. What is not clear is when or even if relocation will enter the talks. The current deal with the players expires a day after the World Series ends.

"We're trying to not be too uptight, but it is frustrating to wait this out," Malek said.

Several politicians, including Florida attorney general Bob Butterworth, already have threatened legal action should teams be eliminated. Their arguments would be fueled by teams playing in publicly funded stadiums tied to long-term leases.

"Baseball cannot contract in a vacuum," said a well-placed baseball insider. "That happens, and it would definitely trigger action in a lot of places."

Baseball's antitrust exemption has stood since 1922 and survived several stiff challenges, including the 232-day players strike of 1994-95. But contraction and its aftereffects could bring a more coordinated review on Capitol Hill.

"It's really hard to explain why this region still doesn't have baseball," said Rep. Frank Wolf, Virginia Republican. Wolf and most of the rest of Northern Virginia's Congressional delegation also met with Busch during his recent visit to Washington and similarly made their case in strong tones.

Curiously, last year's Blue Ribbon Report on Baseball Economics, which Selig heralded, said contraction would not be needed if its numerous other suggestions, such as meaningful revenue sharing and enhanced competitive balance taxes, were implemented.

Baseball spokesman Rich Levin yesterday said Selig was cognizant of what contraction might bring. Perhaps even more problematic than any lawsuit or Congressional action would be a probable fight with the players union over the potential loss of jobs because the issue is subject to collective bargaining.

"The commissioner considers this a serious option, and I think everyone here is aware of the potential consequences," Levin said.

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