- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 10, 2002

MILWAUKEE Baseball is awash in labor strife and drug debate. But the Washington area still wants to join the exclusive party, and members of Washington's two groups seeking a team were here promoting the national capital area once again.

Meeting privately with several key Major League Baseball executives and team owners, groups led by District financier Fred Malek and Virginia telecommunications executive William Collins made soft-sell pitches to baseball's influential bodies and sought out questions on their efforts. Trips by the Collins and Malek groups to the All-Star Game have been commonplace for several years; it is by far the most festive time of the year when all MLB team owners are in one place.

"This isn't about making the big push," said Bobby Goldwater, executive director of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission. The commission is seeking a District-based team in conjunction with the Malek group. "Of course, we want to see and be seen. But this is foremost about making contacts and keeping Washington in the top of baseball's minds as part of the solution to what's going on with them."

MLB commissioner Bud Selig, who in January called Washington "the prime candidate" for relocation, yesterday stuck to his long-held position and said a team move will not be actively considered until after a new labor deal is signed with the players. Negotiations are not proceeding well, and the players have set up a procedure to set a potential strike date later this season.

"We have a lot of critical issues in front of us right now," Selig said. "After we get through these negotiations, that's the time to think relocation. Moving teams doesn't solve your basic economic problems."

While here in Wisconsin, members of the Malek group will study the Brewers' 2-year-old Miller Park and meet with the architects who designed it. The Malek group, in conjunction with the D.C. sports commission, is conducting a site evaluation survey in which it seeks to find the best potential locations and financing plans for a new ballpark in the District. The results will be presented to MLB officials this fall.

The Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority similarly is seeking an architect to design a new ballpark for the commonwealth, with selection expected later this summer.

"We want to learn everything we can about this place," said Paul Wolff, one of the six original investors in the Malek group.

Stephen Porter, another member of the Malek group on the trip, is a Milwaukee native and a childhood friend of Selig's.

The Collins group was joined on the trip by Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a former member of that group and a staunch booster of baseball in Virginia. Warner wrote Selig in January pledging to do "everything fiscally responsible" to bring a team there.

Montreal, of course, is baseball's most troubled franchise and the one most likely to move. Now owned and operated by MLB owners, the Expos are in the unique position of being both a small-market team adding talent for a postseason push and the only team still available for contraction. The Minnesota Twins, the other team pegged for elimination, reached a deal last month with state authorities there to keep playing in the Metrodome through 2003. No other team has volunteered for contraction, which is necessary for it to happen, and contraction must occur in sets of two for scheduling purposes.

MLB executives also remain highly reluctant to keep the Expos, losing well in excess of $20 million a year, on their books for 2003. So at once, Washington baseball advocates are looking at a Montreal club perhaps poised to move and loaded with young stars, including outfielder Vladimir Guerrero, infielder Jose Vidro and newly acquired pitcher Bartolo Colon. Another potential trade with Florida could bring the Expos pitcher Ryan Dempster and outfielder Cliff Floyd.

"This all tells me that baseball doesn't want to contract the Expos," said Bill Hall, board member of the D.C. sports commission.

Expos manager Frank Robinson, despite not planning to remain the field general beyond this year, spoke positively yesterday of the chance of the team remaining in existence and perhaps moving.

"I'm very excited about this team. I'd like very much for it to keep going, stay together, in Washington or wherever," Robinson said. "Baltimore and Washington co-existed before. There's a lot more people there now, so I see no reason why that couldn't happen again."

Players union chief Donald Fehr, following a lengthy meeting Monday in Chicago, again spoke of his desire to see relocation for troubled franchises. Since the owners announced their intent to cut two teams last November, Fehr has been outspoken on his preference for team moves, often mentioning Washington.

The union also has a grievance still pending on the owners' contraction vote, with a decision by independent arbitrator Shyam Das expected as early as next week. That decision will weigh heavily on baseball's labor talks and the potential timing for any team moves.

"If we do get to a situation where we are talking contraction again, we think a fair and reasonable thing to do is to first consider a sale and or relocation, to solicit outside offers first and make that a prerequisite," Fehr said.

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