- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 1, 2002

William Collins, head of the Northern Virginia-based effort to land a major league baseball franchise, freely admits the odd nature of his fruitless, eight-year quest for a still-unidentified team.

"Many times, we felt we should have been committed," Collins said. "But we've kept the faith."

But as the dogged pursuit of a team continues and baseball at RFK Stadium next April remains the hope of area boosters, Collins has new issues to worry about: perceptions of his group, increased financial scrutiny and heightened competition from across the Potomac River.

Just as Major League Baseball executives this year have sounded more positive about baseball in the area, Collins has needed to grapple with a state budget crisis in Richmond, a bankruptcy filing by the Alexandria paging company he chairs, Metrocall Inc., and a grueling financial review of his investor group by the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority. And the $140million to $200million Collins and his partners say they could spend to acquire a franchise may ultimately prove to be far too low a figure.

Meanwhile, the District-based effort led by financier Fred Malek, while by no means a slam dunk either, has suffered no such questions about its financial viability. Instead, the group this year has added several high-profile investors, including Washington Redskins legend Darrell Green, and started an effort, involving the general public, to identify potential sites for a new District-based ballpark.

Collins, often reluctant to trumpet his efforts publicly, earlier this week made an unusual step and played host to local media at a luncheon in Arlington. Collins reaffirmed his commitment to the cause and discussed his pending contract extension with the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority. Collins and his investors have agreed in principle to a five-year, $5million deal to maintain its status as the commonwealth's preferred party to own and operate a major league team in Virginia.

"We're not going anywhere," Collins said. "Whenever Major League Baseball makes the call, we'll be ready."

On the surface, it seems rather strange that Collins would need to remind anyone he's still on the case. His longevity on the issue beats that of Malek's group by a full five years. It was Collins, not Malek, that nearly brought the Houston Astros to Washington in 1996. And it has been Collins, along with the stadium authority, that has most definitively attempted to address concerns about draining the Baltimore Orioles financially. Collins' expenditures in pursuing a team now exceed $7million.

So what happened? In short, several factors have combined to make this local race for baseball more heated than ever.

Once Anthony Williams became District mayor in early 1999 and grew more comfortable with the role, he made pursuing baseball, and all major sporting events, a high-profile matter, unlike predecessor Marion Barry. Williams then pledged to MLB commissioner Bud Selig $200million in public-sector support toward a new District stadium. The full details of where those funds would come from have yet to be made public, but a combination of land grants, tax incentives and direct aid is likely.

While Williams' current political troubles have lessened his exposure on baseball, they still pale to the deep fiscal turmoil in Richmond. The state government is facing possible budget cuts of $1billion over the next two years, and even before any formal funding proposal for a new stadium surfaces, the commonwealth is scrambling to find a new and workable formula for baseball. Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a former investor in Collins' group, promised Selig he'd do "everything fiscally responsible" to bring baseball there, but to date has not developed any hard numbers or plan toward that commitment.

Collins' group is now working with Ron Tillett, former Virginia secretary of finance, to devise new funding proposals for a ballpark. In the new VBSA agreement, Collins and his partners must commit a minimum of $100million of private funds to a stadium. Stadium authority bond measures funded by ballpark-generated revenues, essentially representing a self-funding financing mechanism, will likely contribute another $100million or so to the project. But an additional $100million, at a minimum, will be needed for a state-of-the-art stadium.

Metrocall's bankruptcy, listing liabilities of nearly $1billion, and the company's ongoing reorganization of debt, does not directly factor into Collins or Virginia Baseball Club, the formal entity for Collins' group. Metrocall itself is not a VBC investor. Collins committed personal funds, unconnected to Metrocall, to the baseball effort long ago, and most VBC investors have no direct relationship to Metrocall.

But in an already downbeat business climate, even being loosely connected to a corporate bankruptcy sends a damaging signal. The Metrocall situation formed a small part of an exhaustive financial review of Collins and his partners by the authority lasting more than two months. Back in May, Collins insisted the extension already had been negotiated. Authority officials, however, refused to concur until that review was completed by an outside industry consultant. Final approval on the deal was delayed twice. Many local observers, including Malek, thought the delay unreasonable considering Collins' group funds the vast majority of authority operations.

Even after the deal was reached in principle, authority officials acknowledged Virginia's baseball efforts are not where they want them to be.

"Too many people don't believe our efforts are real," said Michael Frey, authority chairman. "There's definitely skepticism still out there. I still have people come up to me and say we're wasting our time."

Corey Busch, baseball's point man on relocation, declined to characterize the strengths or weaknesses of any particular locale seeking baseball. But his information gathering on the bid efforts on behalf of Selig continues.

"The process is as active as it's ever been," Busch said. "Once we get on the other side of contraction and labor, we obviously could be looking at some type of decision being made with regards to new markets. So it's important that any community that's involved in this continues moving forward."

Malek and Collins continue to be on friendly terms, and it is likely that should one side prevail in landing a team, the other leader will join the rival group as an investor. But that hasn't stopped Virginia from stepping up its assaults on the District baseball effort. Several weeks ago, Frey called Williams' pledge to Selig "not worth the paper it's printed on." And Collins this week called the District "the St. Petersburg of the local market," a reference to how baseball badly erred in the Tampa, Fla., market by placing the stadium away from much of that region's population base.

District officials and members of Malek's group have declined to respond in kind to the salvos. But privately, several D.C. activists have opined that the comments are a signal of Virginia's slipping status in the baseball race.

But until Selig actually hangs a for-sale-and-relocation sign on a team, no one will know for sure.

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