- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Major League Baseball president Bob DuPuy said last night the lawsuit brought against MLB by former limited partners of the Montreal Expos will not delay any consideration of the club's future and that relocation for the 2003 season remains an option.

In July, 14 former limited partners of the Expos sued MLB, commissioner Bud Selig and Jeffrey Loria, now the majority owner of the Florida Marlins, claiming fraud and racketeering. The partners claim MLB, Selig and Loria conspired to drive down the value of the Expos and dilute their equity in the team. The Expos are now wholly owned and operated by MLB.

In recent weeks, some sentiment has grown within baseball that the lawsuit would delay a relocation decision and keep the Expos in Montreal next year, heightened by a repeated threat by the limited partners' attorneys to seek an injunction blocking a move if one were attempted by MLB.

"Any gathering notion of a [delay in a decision] should ungather," DuPuy said. "The lawsuit has simply no bearing on our decision. We are reviewing all our options relevant to the Expos. There is no timetable, either front end or back end, for a decision. But all available options remain on the table."

The Expos, losing in excess of $20million a year, remain by far baseball's weakest franchise. Its average attendance of 9,920 is the worst in baseball. And many team owners could be loath to continue funding the Expos' losses into 2003, even with an estimated $2.3million in additional revenue sharing funds going to the team next year. A four-year block on contraction in the new labor deal has thrust the Expos' plight straight onto baseball's front burner.

Baseball executives have been dismissive of the lawsuit since its filing. And on Friday, MLB attorneys filed five motions in U.S. District Court in Miami, including ones to dismiss the suit, move it out of Miami, release MLB as a defendant and disqualify Weil, Gotshal & Manges, the partners' New York-based law firm, as plaintiffs' counsel.

"They don't own any of the Expos," DuPuy said. The partners' equity followed Loria, formerly the Expos' majority owner, last winter, and the group now owns a small percentage of the Marlins. "The lawsuit and our consideration of the Expos are separate matters."

Despite MLB's insistence on plowing ahead in its consideration of the Expos, a delay in a decision may still happen. Baseball's recent expansions have generated qualified successes in Denver and Phoenix but disasters in Miami and Tampa Bay. Some MLB insiders are reluctant to make another bad team move.

"There is a school of thought that suggests we ought to take our time and do [relocation right]," one baseball insider said. "Maybe we don't need to rush. There are lot of questions still out there."

DuPuy refused to characterize how MLB is conducting its evaluation of the Expos last night. But at the very least, DuPuy, Selig and other MLB officials will review field work on potential new homes for the Expos, including greater Washington, conducted by relocation point man Corey Busch, and take more looks at the club's financial ledger.

"We are simply weighing and evaluating all available data before us," DuPuy said. "There is no fixed timetable. We understand the urgency of the situation and want to move expediently. But when the decision is made, that's when we'll know."

Expos president Tony Tavares said last week he hoped to have answer on 2003 within 10 days, but that request will not be granted.

Meanwhile, local bid groups in both the District and Northern Virginia continue to prepare for a team playing in RFK Stadium as early as April. In the District, a group led by financier Fred Malek next month will complete an evaluation of potential sites for a new ballpark and submit it to MLB executives.

The D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission continues to prepare to-do lists to ready RFK Stadium for baseball. Any locally based team, regardless of ownership, would play at RFK for two and likely three years.

In Virginia, efforts led by telecommunications executive William Collins are centered on refining ballpark financing models and selecting an architect to design the facility.

A tentative 2003 schedule has the Expos beginning the season in Atlanta and playing at home starting April 4 against the New York Mets. The slate, however, remains subject to change if events warrant.

"We stand ready to host baseball whether it's 2003 or the year after," said Bobby Goldwater, D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission president. "There is a window of opportunity that remains open, and we eagerly await some guidance on this."


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