- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 2, 2002

Major League Baseball's long, strange offseason grew even more complicated yesterday. Its ownership committee approved sales of the Montreal Expos and Florida Marlins just 13 days before the start of spring training.
Expos owner Jeffrey Loria will buy the Marlins from new Boston Red Sox owner John Henry for $158 million. Loria then will sell the Expos for $120 million to a newly formed entity owned and operated by Henry and the other 28 club owners. The $38 million difference between the two transactions will be loaned to Loria by MLB, the New York Times reported yesterday.
Loria has yet to sign the purchase agreement with Henry for the Marlins. But with players already preparing to report for spring training, the issue has grown more urgent each day.
"We have to move ahead, simple as that," MLB spokesman Rich Levin said.
The Expos becoming a league-run operation had been widely expected for weeks, but its approval still represents another blow to the Washington area's hopes of landing a team.
Fred Malek, leader of a District-based baseball bidding group, and William Collins, head of a rival group in Northern Virginia, submitted unsolicited bids to MLB officials last month for the Expos. The bids were made with the condition of a move to this area in 2003 and were quickly rejected.
Montreal's average attendance, corporate support and overall revenues are easily the worst among MLB teams, and the Malek and Collins bids were intended in part at keeping the brunt of the Expos' 2002 losses off anyone else's books.
"These deals represent another step in the commissioner's overall plan, one that hopefully includes relocation," Malek said.
Two weeks ago, MLB commissioner Bud Selig said relocation, which has not happened since late 1971, would occur again "much, much sooner than later" and that the Washington area was "a prime candidate" for that move. Since then, MLB officials have refused to place any potential timetable for such a move and at times have made conflicting comments over the local political will toward building a new baseball-only stadium.
The Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority has bonding power to help fund a stadium in the commonwealth, and despite a significant budget crisis a search is ongoing for more public funds. District Mayor Anthony Williams has pledged $200 millilon in public sector assistance for a ballpark there. But neither jurisdiction is likely to offer a hard financial commitment until one is made from MLB for a team.
The Florida and Montreal deals will go before the full ownership body for approval the week of Feb. 11 in a hastily called owners meeting. Franchise transfers in baseball usually require a lengthy review lasting several months.
That same week, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee likely will hold a hearing on a November bill designed to roll back baseball's 80-year-old antitrust exemption. Selig appeared before the House Judiciary Committee on similar legislation in December and received more than three hours of stiff questioning.
Once the sales of Florida and Montreal are approved, a chain of events will begin leaving both teams less than fully prepared for the start of spring training later that week. Loria aims to bring Montreal manager Jeff Torborg and acting general manager Larry Beinfest with him to the Marlins, further gutting an already bare Expos front office. A replacement to run the Expos has not been named, but rumors are rampant that it will be Frank Robinson, currently MLB's vice president of on-field operations.
When all the staffing issues are settled, both clubs will have major catch-up projects to begin. National League East rivals New York, Atlanta and Philadelphia made significant player moves over the winter, particularly the Mets. But with the Marlins and Expos in limbo regarding possible contraction, neither club has done much with its roster.
Loria also will inherit a mammoth challenge in finding the Marlins a new home. With Pro Player Stadium unsuitable for baseball and financially not viable, Henry spent several unsuccessful years trying to land assistance from a skeptical Florida government for a new ballpark. Loria also failed to secure a new park in Montreal for the Expos.
Baseball ideally would like to eliminate the Expos and Minnesota Twins before this season, and MLB officials have said such a move could be executed during spring training. But a pending grievance from the players union, a legal decision requiring the Twins to play in the Metrodome in 2002 and the scheduling and travel chaos that would result from contraction at such a late date combine to make the move this year unlikely.
If contraction is postponed, the owners almost certainly will want it back on the table for 2003. MLB officials conducted three days of labor talks with the players this week in Arizona. No significant movement is expected on that issue for at least several months, but both sides are seeking to avoid the game's ninth work stoppage since 1972.


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