- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 13, 2002

The rivalry between baseball bidding efforts in the District and Northern Virginia has been a largely a gentlemanly affair. But those calm days soon may be ending.

The Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority late Thursday reached an agreement in principle with Virginia Baseball Club on a five-year, $5million extension of an exclusivity agreement between the two sides. The pending deal keeps telecommunications executive William Collins and his partners as the commonwealth's preferred party to own and operate a major league team in Virginia.

Fresh with the new-found security of another half-decade with Collins, authority chairman Michael Frey took dead aim at the competing effort across the Potomac River.

"This extension is about being of one mind and creating the best partnership possible for Virginia. We're pushing our side as much as possible," Frey said. "Looking at where baseball is headed, looking at the local [public relations] war, we think [District Mayor] Anthony Williams' pledge of $200million for baseball is not worth the paper it's printed on."

Frey was speaking of a promise Williams made to Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig to commit up to $200million in land, direct financing and tax incentives toward a new ballpark in the District. Williams first made the pledge to Selig nearly two years ago and reaffirmed it late last year.

Williams spokesman Tony Bullock scoffed at Frey's remarks.

"The mayor's commitment and resolve to bring Major League Baseball to the District are stronger than ever," Bullock said. "We feel we have a terrific package on the table and can bring the resources to bear to make baseball work in the District. Beyond that, I'm not going to engage in that kind of rhetoric and denigrate another bid."

Virginia, primarily through Collins, has been seeking a major league baseball team for eight years, much longer than the District. But in recent months, a deep fiscal crisis in Richmond has tempered the commonwealth's ability to pledge public funds toward a ballpark. Frey said he aims to improve Virginia's standing in local baseball discussion through the Collins contract extension.

"Too many people don't believe our efforts are real," Frey said. "There's definitely skepticism still out there. I still have people come up to me and say we're wasting our time."

Government sniping aside, Collins and District financier Fred Malek, chairman of Washington Baseball Club, have made offers to add the other as an investor should one side prevail in acquiring a team.

Both groups are currently working at refining economic models for funding a stadium development.

Collins' extension with the Virginia authority finally ends an exhaustive review of Collins and his finances lasting more than two months. The authority hired industry consultant Mitchell Zeits to help with the investigation, and though Collins' Metrocall Inc. is not a VBC investor, the company's fiscal troubles did enter the authority review. Metrocall, an Alexandria paging company chaired by Collins, filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last month, listing debts of $937million and assets of $189.3million.

"The situation with Metrocall was raised, but it was never a serious issue with us. They're not a [VBC] investor," Frey said. "Our discussion pertaining to Metrocall was more about perception, how it might affect our efforts. It's something we have to deal with."

The Collins group has given the authority $3.6million in grants and loans since 1997 for the exclusivity rights, and funds the vast majority of authority operations. The new pact is actually a series of five one-year terms, with Collins and his partners holding an option to exit the deal at the end of each year. Final ratification of the new deal is expected by Aug.12.

The new deal also calls for Collins and his partners to commit a minimum of $100million in private funds toward a new ballpark.

Contributing to the delay in approving the Collins extension was a significant turnover on the authority board. Five new members have been placed on the board since spring.

Collins and his investors, which include Wachovia Corp., Fine Host Corp., and Friedman Billings Ramsey Inc., have been seeking a team since 1994. Former investor Mark Warner is now governor of Virginia, and he also has maintained a high-profile lobbying role on Collins' behalf.

During the authority's lengthy review of Collins, the terms of the previous agreement expired May 31 remained in force, blocking out rival suitors that included Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder. The District-based effort led by Malek holds a similar exclusivity agreement with the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission that extends to January 2004.

The agreements while they conceivably could be overturned or simply ignored by Major League Baseball should they seek to enter the Washington market in a different fashion are intended to demonstrate to MLB officials a defined plan for a public/private partnership to support a local franchise.

Despite the extension of the contract, baseball returning to the area for the first time since 1971 remains an elusive prospect. MLB executives including Selig have called baseball in the Washington area "inevitable." But Selig remains firm in his intent not to consider any team moves until after a new labor deal is struck with the players. MLB owners intend to eliminate the Montreal Expos following this season, but a second team to form a necessary pair of clubs for contraction has not been determined.

Collins and the authority, as has been their policy, refuse to disclose yet where they intend to build a new ballpark should they land a franchise.

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