- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 16, 2002

PHOENIX Major League Baseball's version of musical chairs will break out today at an owners meeting here, where the clubs are poised to approve one of the biggest single-day changes of ownership in the game's modern era.

By the end of today, the Boston Red Sox and Florida Marlins likely will have new owners, and the Montreal Expos are set to become the first league-run team since 1975. And Washington, just as it has been since late 1971, will be left standing without a team.

That shuffling ownership actually represents the easier part of the meetings. Also up for discussion are ongoing negotiations with the players union over a new labor deal, a meeting with union chief Donald Fehr, the owners' heavily challenged plan to eliminate two teams before the start of this season and the league's policy on interclub loans.

In the last week, commissioner Bud Selig, the Colorado Rockies and the St. Louis Cardinals have been found to have taken such loans without approval from the other owners, an apparent violation of league bylaws. The loans have led to several members of Congress calling for Selig's resignation.

"We're looking at a very, very full day Wednesday," said an MLB official who declined to be identified. "I don't think we've ever seen a change of ownership like this. And then there's still a full plate after that."

Leading the agenda is the $700 million sale of the Red Sox easily a record franchise price for the sport to a group led by current Florida Marlins owner John Henry. The long, arduous sale of the beloved franchise by the Jean R. Yawkey Trust also has generated significant controversy. Since the trust and Red Sox minority owners selected Henry's bid just before Christmas, several losing bidders and Massachusetts attorney general Tom Reilly have accused Selig and league officials of wrongly steering the proceedings toward Henry.

Henry is a close friend of Selig's, and his group includes former Baltimore Orioles president Larry Lucchino and former U.S. Senate majority leader George Mitchell, who are also close to Selig. In recent days, failed bidders Charles Dolan and Miles Prentice have submitted new, higher bids for the team, seeking to put pressure on the trust and derail the Henry deal. Much of the proceeds of the Red Sox sale will go to charity, which falls under Reilly's jurisdiction.

The team and Yawkey Trust, however, have stood by the original Henry deal, saying the Dec. 20 deadline for final bids was firm.

"We always knew people would fight very hard to own the Red Sox and that emotions would run high," Red Sox chief executive John Harrington said. "But enough is enough. It is obvious that there will be another round of criticism from the disappointed. So be it."

Because MLB rules prohibit cross-ownership of teams, Henry must divest the Marlins, and waiting in the wings is current Montreal Expos owner Jeffrey Loria. Henry is close to a deal to sell the Marlins to Loria for $158 million. Loria then likely will sell the Montreal franchise back to MLB for a similar amount.

The Expos, in turn, would be left without an owner, fall into receivership and be run by the league. If Selig and the owners succeed in contracting Montreal and Minnesota a tough stretch considering the lawsuits and grievances blocking the process that would not be a problem. But if Montreal remains in existence this season and perhaps longer, difficulties await as few would believe the league would do anything meaningful to improve the long-suffering franchise.

"Baseball could certainly save themselves a lot of money by selling [the Expos] to us," said Fred Malek, head of the District-based group seeking a Washington franchise.

The league last ran a club 27 years ago, when then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn appointed Spec Richardson to run the San Francisco Giants until Bob Lurie bought the club a year later.

Selig has refused to specify a drop-date by which contraction becomes impossible for 2002. Most baseball insiders think that date already has passed. But it is expected that by mid-February, when spring training starts for most clubs, some sort of formal decision will be made.

Fehr's appearance, meanwhile, is a first for an owners meeting and eye-opening considering the two sides' long distrust of each other. But with spring training now just a month away, both sides appear eager to make some progress on a long-overdue labor deal. Once a deal is reached, Selig likely will soften his resistance against team relocation.

"This dialogue, while historical and unprecedented, is absolutely necessary if we are to increase the level of understanding that will allow us to make the proper adjustments for this industry to move forward and prosper," Selig said.

In a meeting last week with players union leaders, Selig outlined the owners' early wishes for higher luxury taxes on payroll and increased revenue sharing.

Each change in team ownership requires approval from at least 23 of 30 team owners.

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