- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 31, 2002

NEW YORK The Washington area's pursuit of a Major League Baseball team again promises to grow hot as a result of yesterday's tentative labor deal.
The four-year accord reached by players and owners removes the possibility of any team being eliminated through at least the 2006 season. Owners had sought to wipe out the Montreal Expos and Minnesota Twins last fall, but a Minnesota court ruling had delayed the Twins' execution until at least after next season. Now the new deal gives Washington and Northern Virginia four years and a fresh opportunity to land a team.
As usual, the apple of the Washington area's eye is the Montreal Expos. Struggling under an awkward ownership by the other 29 MLB owners and operation by the MLB central office, the Expos have baseball's second worst attendance this year, are losing more than $20million a year and have no hope of replacing the loathed Olympic Stadium in Montreal.
"This is the best possible outcome for Washington," said Fred Malek, chairman of a District-based effort to land an MLB franchise. "The current situation in Montreal is not sustainable, and this agreement, I think, makes them more likely of moving."
MLB officials refused to specify yesterday where the Montreal Expos will be playing next season. But MLB commissioner Bud Selig has long said relocation will be considered after a labor deal was completed with the players, with Washington, in his mind, "the prime candidate" for a franchise. With formal ratification of that deal expected late next week, consideration of the Expos' new home is expected soon thereafter.
"We're now down to the final innings," said Brian Hannigan, spokesman for the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority, which obviously favors a club in the commonwealth. "I suspect that Bud Selig will soon turn his attention to relocation and his comments on the viability of the Washington-Virginia market will hold true."
Both of the area bid groups already have baseball planning initiatives underway. Malek's group, along with the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission, is conducting an exhaustive site evaluation project of potential homes for a new ballpark in the District. Early candidates include the RFK Stadium campus, Mount Vernon Square and land near the old Woodward & Lothrop warehouse in Northeast. A formal report with several candidate sites and financing proposals will be tendered to MLB officials in October after another public forum on the matter.
Northern Virginia, meanwhile, is currently deciding between HOK Sports and HKS Inc., two powerhouses of stadium design, as the lead architect for its proposed ballpark in the commonwealth. A decision is expected in the early fall.
"This [labor deal] is all promising news. It doesn't necessarily mean anything definitive for Washington, but a door of opportunity has been opened," said Bobby Goldwater, sports commission executive director. "We're doing this site evaluation project for a reason."
No formal bids for the Expos from either Malek or Collins are expected in the immediate future. In January, after Selig made his "prime candidate" comments about the Washington area, both groups tendered unsolicited bids for the Expos. Both were promptly rebuffed.
"This is an excellent agreement on a few fronts," said Jerry Burkot, spokesman for the Virginia Baseball Club, chaired by telecommunications executive William Collins. "Contraction is off the table, and they have addressed some of the economic issues both sides agree will enhance the viability of Major League Baseball franchises. For a group like us, it's good to see they addressed those issues. It makes it a more attractive business."
Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, a staunch opponent of a team in the Washington area and a member of MLB's labor negotiating committee, yesterday declined to comment specifically on the potential of a Washington club. But he did call Montreal's current ownership situation "a slight conflict of interest."
"I don't know where the Expos are playing next year, but that's not what this [agreement] was about," Angelos said. "That was not part of the [labor] discussion. That would only complicate the situation. We are simply very pleased and gratified that we've reached a deal that will allow the game of baseball to move forward."
Angelos added, "I'm not an expert on relocation. I'm simply a lawyer."
The players union fought hard to keep contraction off the table in this round of labor talks, and the settlement renders moot the pending decision from arbitrator Shyam Das on the union's 9-month-old challenge to contraction.
"We've always felt that relocation should be considered before any attempt to contract a club. This deal now ensures that will happen for four years," said Gene Orza, associate general counsel for the union.

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