- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 8, 2001

There were 3,613 people in the stands Tuesday in Montreal for an Expos-Braves game.Major league owners sent the players union a letter the same day, informing them they would seek to make changes in their collective bargaining agreement with the union.

This week, Corey Busch, baseball commissioner Bud Selig's point man in scouting relocation sites for baseball teams, is coming to Northern Virginia and Washington to meet with local officials and members of the two groups seeking to bring major league baseball back to the area.

At the same time, major league owners will be meeting in Milwaukee.

The stars are moving into alignment. Something may be happening soon, one way or the other, to determine whether the Washington area ever will get a baseball team again.

The upcoming labor negotiations could put into motion the action needed to bring this agonizing, lengthy dance 30 years now, since the Washington Senators left town after the 1971 season to its conclusion.

At this point, that's all we can ask. Let us know, one way or another, if baseball will put a team in the Washington area. If so, it will be worth celebrating because it will significantly change the sports landscape in this town. If not, then we can all move on and stop chasing ghosts.

To date, the thinking has been that nothing in terms of franchise relocation (or contraction, though that still appears to be an idle threat) would happen until the owners got a new agreement with the players the premise being that a new deal could have a significant impact on the value of those franchises, particularly if the owners miraculously get some kind salary cap or containment.

But what actually may happen is that baseball owners may be forced to deal with their franchise uncertainty before they can reach a deal with the union. The theme, at least on the surface, of the upcoming labor negotiations has been to move toward a partnership with the players, though no one is exactly sure what that means.

How, though, could you possibly expect someone to be a partner in a business facing so many changes? It would seem that for an agreement to be reached, franchise relocation will have to be addressed.

Even if they decide to extend the existing agreement for another year to continue talks, one of the things they will have to talk about is moving teams. So Northern Virginia/Washington could wind up being a bargaining chip in those talks.

It's obvious that the situation in Montreal can't continue. There have been reports of versions of the 2001 schedule printed up with Washington on it instead of Montreal, although they have not been confirmed by anyone. But I heard the voice of surrender in Montreal this week in a conversation I had with Mark Routtenberg, one of the team's remaining minority owners who has not yet been run off the franchise by majority owner Jeffrey Loria.

Routtenberg has been the most passionate supporter of baseball in Montreal among the Expos partners. He was the driving force behind the effort two years ago to keep the team there when it appeared former owner Claude Brochu was ready to put the team on the market to out-of-town buyers. The guy loves baseball and has been one of the few champions the Expos have had there.

I asked him if they are raising the white flag in Montreal. "Only Jeffrey Loria and Bud Selig know that," he said. "But it's pretty tough up here right now."

Sources have maintained that owners are not likely to let Loria move his franchise before they let other owners with more years of economic hard times make moves either to sell or relocate their teams. The Minnesota Twins are supposedly at the top of that list, and, despite their success this year, they are no closer to getting a stadium than they were several years ago, when they threatened to sell the team to owners who wanted to move it to the Triad area in North Carolina.

Nothing good ever has seemed to emerge out of negotiations between owners and players. The last negotiations resulted in a strike that nearly destroyed the game. This time, they have been working with a more cooperative tone for the talks, although nothing has been negotiated yet. It's easy to be friends when nobody's pocket has been picked.

This time, though, instead of the death of the game, maybe there could a rebirth of baseball in Washington.

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