- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 16, 2003

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. Advocates of Washington area baseball waited by the phone yesterday for the latest instructions from Major League Baseball for seeking the Montreal Expos. But no calls came as MLB's committee to relocate the Expos huddled in detailed process meetings.
The general timetable to move the long-struggling Expos in time for the 2004 season remains on track. Candidate cities will meet with the relocation committee within the next two months to make their cases, and a firm decision on the club's new home is expected by midsummer. But baseball, as is often the case, found itself moving slower than expected.
"I think we're now putting into motion a process," said Expos president Tony Tavares, following the first day of a two-day owners meeting here. "We're still far away from a decision, but baseball owes it to itself to do a thorough analysis and really approach this from all sides: which market can best support a team, what the parameters are with regard to a stadium and, of course, the [selling] price [for the franchise]."
Meanwhile, commissioner Bud Selig will present to owners today a 6-year-old idea to award homefield advantage in the World Series to the league that wins the All-Star Game. Currently, it alternates between the leagues. Following last summer's highly embarrassing 7-7 All-Star tie and fast-slipping TV ratings, Selig and his fellow executives have decided a change is needed.
No other major sports league puts such weight on its All-Star exhibition. A vote will be taken on the format change. But no significant opposition among owners or players exists, even with the seemingly greater potential for pennant race-altering injuries.
"I think we need to try something to reinvigorate the event," said Boston Red Sox president Larry Lucchino. The former Baltimore Orioles executive also denied growing rumors he was joining a Washington-based group seeking the Expos.
The Expos' matter is far more complex than the All-Star reconfiguration, given baseball's reluctance to make another bad move into a new market and the club's heavy fiscal losses.
MLB purchased the Expos last year from Jeffrey Loria, now the owner of the Florida Marlins, for $120million. MLB executives since then have made no secret of their desire to see a significant return on that investment, and the franchise is likely to sell for at least $300 million.
The Expos will split time this season between Montreal and Puerto Rico, playing 22 games in San Juan's Hiram Bithorn Stadium. MLB officials yesterday released ticket plans for the Puerto Rico games, with prices ranging from $10 to $85.
The Washington area is competing with several other cities for the Expos, including Portland, Ore., and San Juan itself if those games draw exceedingly well. In an effort to investigate all possible relocation options, MLB officials also are studying cities like Charlotte, N.C., and San Antonio, Texas, that have no capacity or immediate desire to field a major league team.
Though both the District and Northern Virginia have been pursuing the Expos for years, both have significant fiscal issues. The District recently closed a $323million budget gap, and both Mayor Anthony Williams and City Council have said public sector funds for a new ballpark in the city will not come from existing general fund revenues.
The city ideally would like to contribute at least $200million in public sector financing, but firm details as to where those funds would come from remain elusive. Possibilities include bonds backed by taxes on ballplayer salaries and stadium-generated revenues like tickets, parking and concessions.
The D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission and a bid group led by District financier Fred Malek last fall released a short list of five potential ballpark sites: two spots along Massachusetts Avenue NW between Mount Vernon Square and Union Station, a location near the Southeast Federal Center and District waterfront, the RFK Stadium property and land north of Union Station near New York Ave. NE.
The two groups are now trying to winnow down that list before the District's meeting with the relocation committee. Cost estimates for the sites range from $342million to $542million.
"We think we've got a great story to tell, and we are eagerly awaiting their call," said Bobby Goldwater, sports commission president. "What we need next is some additional instruction."
Northern Virginia is in a similar but even more severe state. The commonwealth's budget deficit exceeds $1billion, state employee cuts have been rampant and the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority is not even going to Richmond this legislative session seeking any type of ballpark financing.
Much of that owes, of course, to the ongoing fiscal woes. But the authority already has significant bonding authority in place, and its current and as yet unmet challenge is similar to the District's in finding sufficient revenue streams to pay off any public sector bonds.
Baseball backers in Virginia have not publicly identified any preferred stadium sites. In recent weeks, however, the stadium authority has hired consultants to help design a ballpark as well as help prepare its presentation before the relocation committee.


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