- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 31, 2003

One thing is for certain in the ongoing chase for the Montreal Expos: Portland, Ore., is far from the perfect candidate.

The West Coast city is less than half the size of metropolitan Washington, operates in a fairly limited TV market and does not have a defined ballpark site or prospective team owner.

The local economy is wobbly at best. Moving the Expos to Oregon could prompt a realignment of divisions for which Major League Baseball is not yet ready. A relocation there also might render damage on the Seattle Mariners in line with the doomsday scenario Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos depicts with baseball in D.C.

And, oh yeah, Portland only has 43percent of the needed funds for a proposed $350million stadium in place.

But that $150million in public sector funding, ratified by the Oregon legislature last week, does present a dangerous situation for the Washington area. In a competition in which MLB officials continue to demand firm public sector money on the table before moving the Expos, it is plucky Portland that has stuck to baseball’s rules and struck first.

The District and Northern Virginia, meanwhile, are still demanding some type of conditional award of the Expos before proceeding further on any financing or site work. Even previously discussed measures that would be a half-step down from that — such as attaching a limited-time window to any stadium legislation to force baseball’s hand — have vanished from active consideration.

The political stances at once look good and feel good on a local level. For once, a public sector body is standing up to big-time sports and attempting to inject some realism into the decades-long rush of blank checks for new stadiums and arenas.

Given the still fragile economic state of both D.C. and Virginia, one very easily can make a case that the demands for a conditional award are by far the best version of constituent service by the politicians when it comes to baseball.

“We need baseball to stand up and say ‘yes’ to Washington,” said Jack Evans, chairman of the D.C. Council finance committee. “Otherwise, this is a fairly meaningless exercise.”

Weeks and months, however, have passed since those conditional award demands were made, and not much has changed. MLB missed a self-imposed deadline of mid-July to have some type of future direction for the Expos. A second, self-imposed goal of Labor Day also looks to be shot as well. MLB officials have finally caught up with the rest of the sports world and all but given up on moving the Expos permanently for next season.

Clearly, baseball’s relocation committee is not jumping through hoops to accommodate greater Washington.

Does this mean the District or Virginia should cave in and just give baseball whatever it wants? Not necessarily. MLB executives have promised some type of information on at least next year’s plan for the Expos within days. And with that will likely come some type of new scenario of how MLB intends to make its decision on the team’s long-term future. That information could be a significant factor in future local decision-making.

But as that happens, two things must be kept in mind. First, baseball still holds all the leverage. MLB owns the Expos, the other team owners surprisingly remain willing to help fund the club’s losses and are quite willing to ignore any deadline that does not suit their purposes. Holding the Expos until the franchise can be contracted in 2007 remains baseball’s hottest, though unsubstantiated, rumor.

And baseball well knows that once a jurisdiction starts pursuing big-time pro sports, that dream does not die quickly, easily or cheaply. That notion certainly applies to Washington, even with several council members completely unconcerned about attaching baseball to their political legacies.

Second, MLB will pick the best overall situation for the Expos and not simply defer to the largest available city, which of course is Washington. One need look no further than the NFL’s most recent expansion for an example of that.

For much of that process, Los Angeles was the clear front-runner, and at one point actually did gain the franchise conditionally. The choice seemed easy, given L.A.’s total absence from the league after the Rams and Raiders left, and its position as America’s No.2 media market. But a series of convoluted, incomplete stadium proposals, including one with a grass-covered parking garage, and a nettlesome political climate sank the bid.

The NFL never received from Los Angeles the security it needed and demanded, and instead went to the much smaller Houston market. A showplace stadium now exists for the Texans, and the club is already estimated as the NFL’s third most valuable franchise.

“We’re not out there making demands,” said David Kahn, director of the Oregon Stadium Campaign. “Baseball has laid out its needs, and a process, and we’re trying to follow that, though we know we still have a big task ahead of us.”

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