- The Washington Times - Friday, January 17, 2003

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. Major League Baseball is no longer guaranteeing that the Montreal Expos will relocate for the 2004 season.
Two months ago, MLB formed a relocation committee to find a home for the long-struggling Expos, with 2004 as the target. But with six more months before a self-imposed deadline to select the team's new location and begin preparations for next year, commissioner Bud Selig described the committee's work as still in the "embryonic stages."
Asked directly if the Expos would move in time for 2004, Selig replied, "Ask me that later this year."
Following a two-day owners' meeting here, Selig said, "We hope to move very quickly on this, but nothing is for certain. We haven't even set up all the procedures on how we're doing this."
Meanwhile, the owners unanimously approved a long-discussed plan to award homefield advantage in the World Series to the league winning the All-Star Game each July.
Traditionally, the advantage had alternated. The switch is designed to boost flagging interest in the midsummer exhibition and help avoid debacles such as last year's embarrassing 7-7 tie.
Fox, the current TV rights-holder for the game, also is in favor of the change. The 2002 game drew the worst ratings in the event's history, and viewership has slipped 38 percent since 1991.
"I believe the All-Star Game needs to be re-energized there's no question about it," Selig said. "This is not merely an exhibition game. It can and should be so much more."
The MLB Players Association must approve the change before it takes effect. Union spokesman Greg Bouris yesterday said the players appreciate the goal behind the All-Star switch but added that union leaders must first canvass the union membership before taking a formal position. Arizona Diamondbacks managing general partner Jerry Colangelo yesterday pre-empted any potential player opposition, calling arguments against the switch "hollow."
The potential delay in moving the Expos is in keeping with baseball's tradition of lengthy decision making. In addition, baseball leaders remain fearful of taking missteps into a new market similar to the game's well-documented foibles in Miami and Tampa Bay. No MLB team has moved since the second Washington Senators franchise left for Texas following the 1971 season.
The relocation committee will meet with several interested cities, including two delegations from greater Washington, in two weeks. At those meetings, each city will make its case for building a stadium and supporting a team. But following those meetings to be scheduled next week actually making a decision and setting the Expos' move in motion could still require many more months.
"Moving for 2004 is still the goal," said one MLB source close to the relocation committee. "But if something happens, it may have to be a different timetable."
The initial meetings will be between government entities and the relocation committee. Potential ownership groups will not be invited because MLB first wants to assess each city's fiscal ability and willingness to help build a stadium and support a team.
Local advocates said they were not entirely surprised by baseball's apparent slowing down on the Expos issue.
"We will do what we have to do," said Gabe Paul, executive director of the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority. "Whatever baseball wants, we will endeavor to do that."
Bobby Goldwater, D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission president, expressed similar sentiment.
"[Waiting until 2005], in my mind, was always an option they had," Goldwater said. "But we're obviously looking forward to making our case for baseball."
Both sides are working hard to piece together a package for stadium financing and identify preferred sites for a new stadium. The District is further ahead on the site issues, having named five candidates last fall, but both sides are working on the stadium financing during a period of budget deficit.
The core of stadium financing proposals in both Northern Virginia and the District likely will center on public sector bonds paid off by ballpark-related revenue likely taxes on tickets, parking and ballplayer incomes.
The potential delay in moving the Expos could allow each relocation candidate more time for its economies and public sector budgets to improve.
Besides the Washington area, MLB's relocation committee also is considering a small group of cities including Charlotte, N.C., Portland, Ore., and San Antonio, Texas.
If Montreal does not relocate in time for 2004, it is likely the Expos' home games will be shared with San Juan or some other foreign locale. MLB has moved 22 Expos home games for 2003 to San Juan in the hope of generating more revenue, stemming the Expos' heavy losses and promoting baseball internationally. The club is currently under the ownership and control of MLB and loses an estimated $30million a year.
Also at yesterday's owners' meeting:
MLB named 15 people to a previously announced marketing task force designed to improve the game and its fan appeal. Members include ESPN president George Bodenheimer, MLB Players Association general counsel Gene Orza and syndicated columnist George Will. Two active players will be named later.
MLB also announced a new intent to lower the average game time from last year's 2 hours, 52 minutes to 2 hours, 45 minutes or less. Baseball has tried repeatedly over the years to hasten the pace of play the average game time has crept up by 20 minutes since 1982 but has failed to stem the steady increase. The renewed efforts will focus on eliminating delays by pitchers and batters.


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