- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 2, 2002

Gabe Paul dropped a little bomb recently on the local baseball scene when he revealed that the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority was reviewing the finances of Bill Collins' group, Virginia Baseball, before signing a new exclusivity agreement with the group.

Paul, the Authority's executive director, says it is simply a formality, part of the "due diligence" process the authority has to undertake before marrying up with the Collins group again. "It's just a matter of procedure," Paul said. "We did the same thing when we signed the first agreement with them."

That deal, a five-year agreement, expires May31. And though Paul said the authority is "not anticipating any problems," he did acknowledge the possibility that if it doesn't reach a new agreement with the Collins group, it leaves the Authority open to negotiate with any current major league owner who might want to relocate here.

That's not likely to happen. The Authority probably will reach an agreement with Virginia Baseball if, that is, Virginia Baseball wants to continue shelling out millions to fund the Authority and continue its quest for major league baseball in Northern Virginia.

Investors in the Northern Virginia group will meet today to decide whether or not they "have the will to pursue this for another period of time," Collins said.

"If the agreement is not renewed with the Authority, it will be because of us," Collins said. "Our partners have to decide if they want to continue with a process that has gotten to be a joke. Baseball has taken seven years now to figure out what to do, with one of the best markets in the nation languishing here. We're on our third governor now since this began."

No one can deny the contribution that Bill Collins and Virginia Baseball have made in the effort to bring baseball back to the metropolitan area. They have been at it since 1994, constantly lobbying baseball and fighting the good fight.

"Virginia Baseball was willing to step up to the plate when nobody else was around," Paul said. "They are the reason that baseball thinks about this area the way they do now. They have educated baseball and put this area back on the map."

The group has spent probably at least $6million to do this, including serving as the primary source of funding for the Authority.

"We helped create them," Collins said. "They came about through our efforts, and we have been the ones paying for their salaries and expenses. They have no other income, other than what we have provided."

Paul said the Authority has enough funding from Virginia Baseball to operate for the rest of this year and next year, although it would not have the funding for additional studies. However, Collins made a point of saying that he fully anticipates the Authority's relationship with Virginia Baseball to continue. A negotiating session is scheduled for next week, and Collins said that about "80 percent" of the negotiations have been completed.

"There have been some issues with lively discussions and conversations for the last five months," he said."We basically have the same people in place as we did five years ago in our group. Some of the net worth has changed, both negatively and positively. [Collins' company, Metrocall, nearly filed for bankruptcy recently, but he maintains that hasn't affected his investment in the group, which counts First Union Bank among its members.] But it's a difficult analysis. How do you sell something when you have no clue what the deal will be? They can't answer the question whether $50million or $100million in equity would be enough, and neither can we."

It is clear that patience is wearing thin and nerves are very frayed because of the presence of other players in the baseball picture now, such as Fred Malek's Washington Baseball Club in the District and most recently the announcement that Redskins owner Dan Snyder has crashed the party. There is anticipation that others will follow at a time that baseball finally appears to be close to returning to the area.

"Maybe they will try to woo Dan Snyder over, who knows," Collins said, referring to the Authority's options.

These exclusivity agreements are all the rage in baseball circles here. The Malek group has entered into one with the District as well. But they may not be worth the paper they are printed on. Major League Baseball is as heavy-handed a business as there is, and it not the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission nor the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority will decide who will own a team here. We saw that in Boston, where the sale was steered in the direction of baseball's favored ownership group led by two former owners, John Henry from the Marlins and Larry Lucchino from the Padres instead of to local investors who were the favorites in town.

Collins is not worried about the possibility of an existing owner (see Jeffrey Loria of the Marlins) driving into town on the road that Virginia Baseball has paved.

"Any owner coming [into Northern Virginia] is going to have to deal with us," he said. "Why would you want to be an owner who moves in here and not have us involved in the deal? I don't know how they would get anything through the [Virginia] legislature without us, or get the community support they need without the grass roots effort we have in place here. Probably Dan Snyder is the only one who could figure he could overcome all that."

But both Collins and Paul say there is no reason to believe that they won't be doing business together after May31.

"This really isn't that big of a deal," Collins said. "Don't read too much into it."

They think it's a big deal in the District, though, where they fear the unknown: a major league owner relocating his team across the river.

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