- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 18, 2002

NEW YORK Major League Baseball President Bob DuPuy yesterday said it is "inevitable" the Washington area will get a franchise within five years, marking the strongest statement yet regarding the region's chances to land a team.
"I think it's inevitable that there will be a team in D.C. or Northern Virginia," Mr. DuPuy said. "I just think it's a matter of when. Whether it's next year or the year after or whether it's five years from now, I think it's inevitable that we end up with a team in D.C."
Mr. DuPuy, also MLB's chief operating officer, said such a development is likely to happen soon after the sport's labor troubles are resolved. The comments represent a marked step forward in Washington's fruitless, 30-year quest to replace the twice-departed Senators and advance those made by MLB commissioner Bud Selig in January. Mr. Selig said then that Washington was "the prime candidate" for a team and that relocation was coming to baseball "much, much sooner than later."
Despite the growing bullishness for the Washington area within MLB offices, officials there first intend to resolve two difficult problems. Negotiations continue with the players union to settle a nasty labor dispute and craft a new economic system. But the efforts to produce a new basic agreement are proceeding badly, and the game could face its ninth work stoppage since 1972.
Also folded into these worsening labor talks is MLB's intent to shut down two teams. Mr. Selig and the team owners originally intended to eliminate the Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos before this season. However, a stadium lawsuit in Minneapolis and a grievance filed by the players union postponed that effort.
Even against that gloomy backdrop, the two groups seeking to bring a team to the Washington area heartily welcomed Mr. DuPuy's comments.
"This represents more encouragement from Major League Baseball that they recognize the vitality of our market," said financier Fred Malek, chairman of a D.C.-based effort. "This is certainly very good news. Sooner would obviously be better than later, but we'll be ready when they are."
Said Gabe Paul, executive director of the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority: "This is something we have sensed, both publicly and privately. The benefits of a team here, I think, are becoming clearer [within MLB] and more a part of their planning."
Both groups intend to play in RFK Stadium for two years but would seek to build a new stadium to be used only for baseball. The Malek group, working with the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission, next week will hire a consultant to conduct a detailed site survey of potential stadium locations, as well as develop a financing model to pay for it. Mayor Anthony A. Williams has pledged up to $200 million in land and public money for the stadium, though that promise would need to clear the D.C. Council.
In Virginia, Gov. Mark R. Warner has pledged to do "everything fiscally responsible" to build a ballpark there, and a plan developed with the stadium authority calls for about $100 million in state bonds supported by stadium revenue. A bid group led by telecommunications executive William Collins has been trying for eight years to land a team and holds an operating contract with the stadium authority to jointly pursue a team and new stadium. That contract, however, expires May 31, and authority officials will reinvestigate the Collins group and its financial viability before agreeing to an extension.
The Expos, now owned and operated by MLB and languishing in Quebec, remain the favorite for relocation or elimination. MLB officials would prefer not to run the team again in 2003, but a timetable to make that decision, and in turn relocation, is tied to the tenuous labor talks.
"[Mr. Seligs] stated aim is to run the Expos for as short a time as possible," Mr. DuPuy said. "We're going to lose money up there. We didn't want to run them. In an ideal world, Minnesota would get a new stadium, we'd relocate the Expos somewhere and we'd get a labor deal that had a competitive balance tax and more revenue sharing, and everyone would ride off into the sunset happy. But we've got an awful short window to do all that."
Mr. DuPuy said the extent to which a Washington team would have an economic effect on the Baltimore Orioles remains uncertain. The Orioles say a quarter of their fan base and corporate support is derived from the Washington area. Local baseball supporters say the figure is less than half that.
"Washington is a complicated issue. I don't think anyone disputes that there would be some impact," Mr. DuPuy said. "The question is how much, and the question is, would you turn what has been clearly one of our flagship franchises of the last 10 years notwithstanding the fact that they haven't performed very well on the field the last few years into two OK franchises."
Orioles owner Peter Angelos has long been an outspoken opponent of baseball in Washington. Team officials yesterday downplayed Mr. DuPuy's comments. "It's basically the same thing Selig has been saying," club spokesman Bill Stetka said.
Mr. DuPuy also denied speculation that Mr. Angelos agreed to serve on the negotiating team in exchange for MLB blocking a relocation to Washington, calling it "absolute hooey."

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