PHOENIX Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig yesterday called Washington “the prime candidate” for relocation of a club, possibly in 2003.
Selig’s new characterization of Washington marked by far his most positive comment on the area’s ability to support a team and represented a striking turnabout from November, when he said “no viable market” for relocation existed.
Since then, baseball’s effort to eliminate the Montreal and Minnesota franchises before the 2002 season has run into several key roadblocks, most notably an ongoing labor grievance by the players’ association. Selig and team owners meeting here have taken a franchise move this year off the table, but 2003 remains a distinct possibility.
MLB officials are facing the very real prospect of operating the Montreal Expos after current owner Jeffrey Loria departs to buy the Florida Marlins, likely next month, leaving the Expos without an owner. MLB officials said yesterday they do not want their stewardship of Montreal to last more than one year, making the Expos the most likely candidate to move.
In recent weeks, rival bidding groups from the District and Northern Virginia have continued to lobby baseball hard on the area’s desire for a club. Most recently, the D.C. group led by financier Fred Malek signed a two-year deal with the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission that provides exclusive short-term use of RFK Stadium and lays out preliminary plans to build a new ballpark in the city, preferably near Mount Vernon Square.
“Washington is a wonderful market. And I have no doubt in my mind relocation is going to happen in baseball, much, much sooner than later,” Selig said. “But we need to fix our problems first. Given the demographics of the area and all the people who want [baseball], I would say [Washington is] the prime candidate.”
Washington has been without a team since the expansion Senators left for Texas following the 1971 season. The original Senators, a charter member of the American League in 1901, moved to Minnesota following the 1960 season. The expansion club began play the following year.
Baseball currently is mired in a state of competitive and fiscal imbalance marked by MLB claims of $232 million in operating losses last season. Selig wants to address that imbalance and mounting team debts by reaching a new labor agreement with the players’ union before seriously addressing relocation.
Malek and Williams Collins, the telecommunications executive leading the Northern Virginia-based effort for baseball, yesterday both characterized Selig’s comments about Washington as the best news they have heard on their long quests.
“This is such a 180-degree turn from where [Selig] was,” Malek said. “This is clearly the most positive development we’ve had so far.”
Asked about the discrepancy between his comments yesterday and those in November, Selig said, “It’s a wonderful market. This has never been about them. It’s about us. We need to address our [economic] system.” He also said the November comments were made solely in the context of 2002.
League sources said beyond reaching a new labor deal with the players, the other key delay is mollifying Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos. Long an opponent of a team in Washington, Angelos has refused to address recent suggestions within baseball that he might be receptive to a payment as high as $75 million to indemnify his potential losses. Angelos again declined comment yesterday.
Also yesterday, union chief Donald Fehr, making his first appearance at an owners’ meeting, refused to match Selig’s pledge Wednesday not to enact a work stoppage this season. Eight such stoppages have occurred since 1972.
Like Selig, Fehr is aiming for a far more peaceful resolution in just-starting negotiations toward a new labor deal, and said a strike has not been considered in any way. And he called the unexpected invitation from Selig to the meeting “a radical departure from the past.”
Yet Fehr’s guarded comments following his two-hour meeting with the owners showed that significant differences still exist.
Those differences became most clear when Fehr was asked about Selig’s proposal last week for a luxury tax on team payrolls above $98 million. The tax, which in theory would help prop up struggling clubs, is being seen as a key point in the owners’ still-developing labor proposal.
“Our very simple view is that players aren’t luxury items,” Fehr said.
The two sides are now hurriedly scheduling meetings to resume formal labor talks, as well as the ramifications of Loria’s pending $158 million purchase of the Marlins and league operation of the Expos. Loria wants to take several key Montreal staffers with him to South Florida, and since the fates of Florida and Montreal will not be determined until mid- to late February, those two beleaguered franchises now stand in a state of even more flux.