- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 14, 2002

In the Washington area's quest for a baseball team, how do the terms "prime candidate" and "inevitable" mesh with "all available options remain on the table"?
Major League Baseball president Bob DuPuy offered the latest quote for the file earlier this week when he told The Washington Times that a wide variety of scenarios for the beleaguered Montreal Expos including a move as soon as next year remain under consideration. That decision-making process will include another round of exhaustive studies of Montreal, greater Washington and nearly a half-dozen other markets.
The Expos are baseball's worst draw at the gate and its worst revenue producer, and the Washington area is the largest U.S. market without a major league team. But DuPuy's "all available options" quote and recent whispers within baseball suggest the local area is engaged in a fierce horse race for a team.
"I have not had a chance yet to sit down with the commissioner and go over all the latest information," said Corey Busch, baseball's point man for relocation. "But I expect that to happen soon, and he will be made current of everything I know from all the [potential] cities."
A survey of other potential relocation markets indicates that Washington remains far more organized than any of its apparent competitors.
Portland: The Oregon city has become the anti-Washington choice for relocation in various media reports, perhaps simply for no other reason than the fact that it is 3,000 miles away from the Baltimore Orioles.
"We don't have the Peter Principle," said Lynn Lashbrook, president of the Oregon Baseball Campaign, referring to Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos. "Seattle may be nervous, but they have no choice but to support us. We have become a contender by default, but who cares as long as we get a team."
Portland likes to tout itself as the largest market in the United States without a major league team, with more than 2 million people. But that conveniently includes Vancouver, Wash., in the market and also conveniently does not recognize Washington as a separate market, as Nielsen Media Research does, instead lumping it with Baltimore. As far as Portland is concerned, Washington already has a team.
What Portland does not have is a major league ballpark ready for use like RFK Stadium, or a major league ownership group, such as the Washington Baseball Club in the District and Virginia Baseball in Northern Virginia. Lashbrook says neither one is a problem for Portland.
"Baseball will decide who owns these franchises, and I'm sure there are billionaires who would like to own the team," he said.
Lashbrook dismissed reports that Microsoft mogul Paul Allen was ready to purchase the Expos and move them to Portland, as did officials of the Portland Trail Blazers, owned by Allen.
Recently renovated PGE Park, a Class AAA facility, would be a temporary home for a Portland team, and is expandable to a capacity of 21,000. Funding for a new major league ballpark fell short in the state legislature in 2001, but Lashbrook believes it will pass this year.
"Actually, I don't think we are competing with Washington," Lashbrook said. "I think both of us will be getting baseball franchises."
Charlotte: In the middle and late 1990s, Charlotte was a vogue place to be. It had a new NFL team in the Panthers, which made the conference finals in its second year, an emerging NBA force in the Hornets, and stood at the center of NASCAR's exploding universe. Baseball also seemed to be part of Charlotte's future, and the area made a bid for the Minnesota Twins in 1998.
Several years later, however, the sports landscape in Charlotte has changed dramatically, as have economic conditions. The minor league Charlotte Knights, playing across the border in Rock Hill, S.C., are one of the worst draws in Class AAA. The Hornets now play in New Orleans. Knights owner Don Beaver, the center of Charlotte's big-league dreams, continues to keep in touch with Busch. But Beaver said he is no longer actively on the relocation case.
"I don't know of any concerted effort for big league baseball here anymore," Beaver said. "Our main effort now is finding a new NBA team to replace the Hornets, and I'm trying to get a new downtown stadium for the Knights. I'm always interested in a major league team, but right now my company's not doing anything about that."
New Jersey: The pitch for a team in northern Jersey, advanced primarily by several academics, stems largely from simple economics. Split the enormous New York market for baseball from its current two parts to three, and the trio of clubs still would have a massive fiscal advantage over the rest of the league. And of course, one of baseball's supposed heydays was when the Yankees, New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers shared the Big Apple.
Upon further study, however, there is nothing here to make a team a reality anytime soon, if ever. No stadium site has been even loosely discussed, there is no ownership group, and there is no definable way to get around the ability of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and Mets owner Fred Wilpon to block any New Jersey team. The two retain territorial rights over the New York market, which includes northern New Jersey. The state, however, has become fertile ground for the minor leagues, with eight teams there.
"This is Yankees and Mets country," said George Zoffinger, president of the New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority, which operates the Meadowlands sports complex. "I don't know how any [major league] team here would go over well with Mr.Steinbrenner."
Las Vegas. Another possible site that has been thrown around in discussions is Las Vegas. With 1.5 million people, the city is the fastest growing in the country, and so there has been conjecture that it could be ripe for a major league franchise.
It may very well be ripe, but not for baseball.
"There is no major professional sports team here, and ultimately there will be," said Don Logan, president and general manager of the Las Vegas 51s, the Class AAA team there. "The city is too good a market to ignore. But we're talking about something like the NBA. We have no suburbs, and that makes it pretty tough for baseball when you are talking about sheer market size. We are like Phoenix was about 30 years ago, when the Suns began playing there."
There are a number of obstacles facing a major league baseball team locating in Las Vegas. No ownership group has emerged, and concerns remain about putting a team in the center of the country's legalized gambling mecca. The only baseball facility available, at least temporarily, would be Cashman Field, the minor league ballpark where the 51s play.
Norfolk. The Hampton Roads area emerged last year as a site under consideration for a major league team, after Busch visited the site several times. But that talk subsided, and now supporters have focused their attention on a massive transportation referendum in November.
"We thought we were making some progress," said former Hampton mayor James Eason, president of the Hampton Roads Partnership. "We were told by [Busch] that we were on the short list, but it was never defined how many communities were on that short list. Then contraction conversations began, and it died down."
Hampton Roads also fell short in its quest for an NBA franchise, losing the Hornets to New Orleans. Hampton Roads is still interested in a major league baseball franchise, Eason said, but it has moved to the back burner. There is no ownership group there, and if a team had to move quickly, they would have to play in the Mets Class AAA minor league club's ballpark, which Eason said could be temporarily expanded to hold somewhere in the mid-20,000 range.
Montreal. Keeping the Expos in Montreal for another season remains a possibility. Some baseball insiders remain reluctant to make a team move without completely ensuring it won't be a disaster like the expansions into Tampa, Fla. and Miami. But the MLB-owned and operated Expos draw less than 10,000 per game, losses continue to pile up, a new stadium is a pipe dream, and many owners remain loath to keep pouring money into baseball's black hole.
"The commissioner has been very consistent that he will consider relocation once a collective bargaining agreement was done and there was some clarity on contraction," Busch said. "We have that now, and I expect [baseball] to move forward expeditiously."

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