- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 21, 2002

IRVING, Texas Let the bidding begin.

The Washington area long has pursued the Montreal Expos for relocation, and Major League Baseball yesterday in true D.C. fashion formed a special committee to find a home for the long-struggling Expos.

The eight-member panel, composed of MLB owners, executives and one outside consultant, will formally assess candidate cities and establish an auction process to sell and move the club.

A final decision on the Expos' permanent new home is expected within six to nine months, in time for the start of the 2004 season.

"This committee is going to work through the process, review and analyze everything before us, and ultimately make a recommendation to me and the clubs," commissioner Bud Selig said. "This is an important matter and important decision for us."

The formation of the Expos committee highlighted a busy owners' meeting here in which MLB announced a 22-game schedule in Puerto Rico next season for the Expos, formed another committee to find new ways to promote baseball and approved a two-game series in Japan between Seattle and Oakland to open the 2003 season.

The Expos committee represents an expected first step in what promises to be a careful and deliberate relocation of the club, the first for any MLB team since the second Washington Senators left for Texas after the 1971 season.

Not only are baseball leaders wary of making another bad move into a new market, seen most recently in horrific entries into Miami and St. Petersburg, Fla., but MLB also wants to maximize its investment on the Expos. MLB owners bought the team last year from Jeffrey Loria for $120million. A move to a high-income market such as Washington could triple that sum.

Sitting on the Expos committee are Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, Milwaukee Brewers chairman Wendy Selig-Prieb, MLB president Bob DuPuy, MLB executives John McHale, Tom Ostertag and Jonathan Mariner, MLB relocation consultant Corey Busch, and Bob Starkey, a private industry consultant who works in sports finance.

Two preliminary committee meetings already have been held, mostly to review data compiled by Busch during two years of fact-finding. The committee, however, will go far beyond Busch's work by qualitatively evaluating each city's ability to foster long-term success for the Expos, as well as its willingness to pay for the team and help build a new stadium.

Washington's potential competition for the Expos includes Portland, Ore., and perhaps even San Juan if the Expos games there go exceedingly well.

DuPuy said his comments from earlier this year regarding Washington's "inevitability" for baseball stand, but he cautioned that does not necessarily put Washington in the lead for the Expos.

"Washington will inevitably have baseball," DuPuy said. "But that's an open window. It could be five years, 10 years, one year, 30 years. But it will happen."

Among the relocation data going before the committee is a new stadium report sent last week to MLB by a District-based bid group led by financier Fred Malek. The report outlined five stadium site options in the city, with a cost range of $342 million to $542million.

Washington area bid groups welcomed the formation of the committee.

"This is a very smart step," said Winston Lord, executive director of the Malek-led Washington Baseball Club. "The commissioner has assembled a strong group, and we are confident that in their final analysis, they'll find Washington is the best market for the Expos and we are the best ownership group."

The Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority has many ties with the Expos committee, particularly through executive director Gabe Paul Jr. Paul, who worked for many years with the Brewers and Selig-Prieb, knows Reinsdorf and Busch very well, and hired Starkey, a former Arthur Andersen partner, in 1997 for a short-term assignment assessing the financial viability of the William Collins-led Virginia Baseball Club.

"This committee is very good news," Paul said. "After all the speculation, they're formally looking at relocating Montreal."

MLB owners also are eager to resolve the Expos situation. The team's 2002 attendance of 812,536 again was baseball's worst and the team lost more than $30million a year before revenue sharing.

"They need to be in a different market," said Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks.

Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, a longtime opponent of baseball in the Washington area, declined comment following yesterday's meeting.

The Expos' games in Puerto Rico, to be played in 20,000-seat Hiram Bithorn Stadium, come with three goals: to increase Montreal's club revenues, keep the club more viable for potential buyers and promote the game internationally. The Puerto Rican gate receipts, arriving in more valuable U.S. dollars, will allow the Expos to avoid a fire sale of their roster similar to ones that gutted the team and its fan base repeatedly in the 1990s. Some of the Puerto Rico income also will be guaranteed by promoters and government officials there.

The other 59 Expos home games will be at Olympic Stadium.

Baseball and Expos officials yesterday declined to specify the Expos' mandated payroll for 2003, but the expected figure of $43million should allow most but not all of Montreal's improving roster to stay intact.

There will be 10 Expos games in Puerto Rico in April, six in June and six in September. The final schedule will be set after consultation with and approval from the MLB Players Association.

The Japan series also falls into MLB's international promotion efforts. Baseball started its 2000 season in Japan with a two-game set between the New York Mets and Chicago Cubs and opened the 1999 campaign in Mexico and last year in San Juan.

"This is all part of our attempt to promote the game wherever we can," Selig said. "[The Japan series] is the sort of thing I want to do as much as possible."

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