- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 20, 2002

IRVING, Texas The Montreal Expos' future for 2003 is set. Now the key question what to do for 2004 and beyond? moves to baseball's front burner.

Major League Baseball executives and owners meeting here today formally will ratify a plan for the Expos, which they own and operate, to play as many as 20 of 81 home dates in 2003 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and set a team payroll of about $43 million, up $5 million from 2002. Expos manager Frank Robinson yesterday also signed a one-year contract extension to stay on as skipper.

But those measures represent stopgaps at best. With patience and wallets for the Expos' hopeless situation in Quebec wearing thin and all labor obstacles removed, the long-ignored Montreal club finally will get the attention that will lead to baseball's first relocation since 1971. And bid groups in Washington and Northern Virginia, long eyeing the Expos for relocation, will be watching closely.

MLB executives want to have a final answer on the Expos by next summer, and the most likely scenario is some type of auction process to yield a maximum franchise price. That process is expected to begin forming at today's meeting. The owners paid $120 million for the Expos last year after efforts to eliminate the team and Minnesota Twins were thwarted.

The accelerating deliberations for 2004 gained a set of new data last week when a District-based bid group led by financier Fred Malek sent MLB executives a report detailing stadium site options in the city. The five site options in the report range in cost from $342 million to $542 million, and Malek's group believes the project can be funded through a series of ballpark-related tax measures, special lotteries and sin taxes, borrowing and private capital.

But not all in the District government are sure a 2-year-old pledge from Mayor Anthony Williams for $200 million in total public-sector assistance toward a ballpark can be met under current economic conditions. Northern Virginia, also seeking a major league team, also is finding its baseball dreams hamstrung by public-sector fiscal weakness.

The four key executives who received the stadium report commissioner Bud Selig, president Bob DuPuy, executive vice president John McHale and relocation consultant Corey Busch have not yet read the full 70-page text or supplied the Malek group with any kind of response. But one is anticipated soon.

"We've given them something to chew on, and our hope, of course, is that this starts a meaningful dialogue toward getting baseball back in Washington," Malek said.

Washington's competition for a team is headed by Portland, Ore., and a far less organized collection of smaller cities like Salt Lake City and Las Vegas.

The Expos' 2003 payroll will again be the lowest in baseball and likely will not be enough to keep an emerging nucleus of outfielder Vladimir Guerrero, second baseman Jose Vidro and pitchers Bartolo Colon and Tony Armas Jr. together. Interest is already high among rival general managers for much of Montreal's roster.

The Puerto Rico schedule plan, basically requiring the Expos to have two home cities, is quite unusual for baseball and mirrors the game's early days in which barnstorming tours and constant searches for long-term franchise stability were common.

The Expos will play the Puerto Rico games in Hiram Bithorn Stadium, a 20,000-seat ballpark that played host to two games in 2001 between Texas and Toronto. MLB executives hope the Puerto Rican fans will move the turnstiles at a much faster clip than those in Montreal, where the 2002 draw of 812,536 was MLB's worst. Homestands in San Juan likely will be played in April, June and September. Final scheduling will be made after agreeing on details with the MLB Players Association.

Fiscal losses, however, will again be heavy for the Expos in 2003. Crowds at Olympic Stadium figure to be more bleak than ever, and major media and sponsorship contracts are nonexistent.

"We're willing to fund the losses [in 2003] if there's a long-term plan," San Francisco Giants owner Peter Magowan said.

In midseason, an edgy and tired Robinson made it clear he wanted no part of another year in Montreal. But in the final weeks of the season, the team rallied to finish 83-79, good enough for second in the NL East. Recharged by the young team's strong showing, Robinson now has not ruled out managing beyond next season, a scenario that could land the Hall of Famer in Washington.

Sealing Robinson's return were promises from MLB's central office that the Expos' roster would remain as intact as possible.

"The assurance is that this ballclub is not going to be stripped as to where you look out there and say, 'That's a Triple-A ball club,'" Robinson said. "I really didn't get into the financial part of what the team was going to be like this season. I don't see the bottom falling out of this ballclub."

The solidifying of the Expos' 2003 plan will lead to a signing soon of a formal lease agreement at Olympic Stadium. MLB executives hammered out a tentative one-year accord for the much-hated building earlier this fall while deliberating the team's short-term options.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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