- The Washington Times - Friday, December 12, 2003

The Montreal Expos’ 2004 schedule is at last complete, seven months after work on it first began. But the team’s future for 2005 and beyond remains as murky as ever.

The Expos yesterday announced their official slate featuring another 22 games in Puerto Rico. But a firm provision to move the team by the start of the 2005 season, a subject of frequent discussions between Major League Baseball and the players’ union, is not believed to be included in the written agreements laying out the Expos’ schedule.

“I don’t believe that’s part of this deal,” said Expos president Tony Tavares. “[MLB] absolutely wants to do the move by then, but how can you make an absolute promise and commitment like that? I think their attitude is that it takes two to tango and that there are still stadium issues that have to be worked out. There is a chance we could still be where we are [in 2005].”

All 22 games in Puerto Rico, otherwise a repeat of baseball’s 2003 “experiment” on the island, this time will be played before the All-Star break. Six of this year’s Puerto Rico games were played in September, and many Expos players cited the additional travel as a key factor in the team’s late fade out of the National League East race toward the postseason.

The core structure of the Expos’ 2004 schedule had been in place for months. But numerous issues — including a flirtation by MLB toward staging part of the schedule in Monterrey, Mexico, as well hangups over TV distribution rights and the Expos’ opponents in Puerto Rico — continued to delay the schedule announcement. A final deal between MLB and Puerto Rican promoter Antonio Munoz, who guaranteed MLB $6.6million for the 2003 San Juan games and will pay a similar amount next year, is still not complete.

Even without a firm covenant to move the Expos by 2005, MLB executives say that timetable is now the clear goal. Upon buying the Expos for $120million in early 2002, baseball’s ownership of the struggling, money-losing club was intended to last one season.

Vying to be the Expos’ permanent home will be a still-expanding group of cities that includes the District, Northern Virginia, Norfolk, Va., Portland, Ore., and Monterrey.

Meanwhile, Fred Malek’s Washington Baseball Club and the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission continue to have productive discussions toward a renewal of their contractual working relationship. The two sides signed a two-year memorandum of understanding in January 2002 that anointed Malek’s group as the city’s preferred baseball owners.

While not definitively blocking other potential suitors, that pact and the potential renewal are designed to show MLB executives a public-private partnership for baseball within the District.

Union officials were not available for comment.

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