- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 19, 2003

Do you remember when the Montreal Expos still had a shot of coming to the Washington area in time for the 2003 season? Do you remember when Major League Baseball said publicly it had no intent of owning the Expos for more than one season?
Those memories may now seem dated enough to be toned in sepia, but these events happened just four months ago. As recently as September, the Expos' status for 2003 was entirely undecided. With labor peace secured and contraction off the table, playing another season in Montreal was possible. So, too, was the long-awaited relocation of the struggling franchise. And also possible was moving some games to San Juan, which ultimately became reality in November.
MLB executives now have thrown another changeup. Just two months after forming a relocation committee to move the Expos in time for 2004, commissioner Bud Selig is no longer guaranteeing that a permanent new home will be identified in time for next year. Shockingly, what was originally designed as just a one-year temporary state when MLB owners bought the Expos last year for $120million could now turn into a three-year ordeal.
"We hope to move very quickly on this, but nothing is for certain," Selig said. "We haven't even set up all the procedures on how we're doing this."
So what is the problem? Why is baseball remaining so slow to fix an obviously broken situation?
The core question of which city is best positioned to build a new ballpark and support the Expos must still be addressed. That is the current and critical task before the relocation committee, which will conduct initial meetings with interested cities later this month. Those jurisdictions, including the District and Northern Virginia, are in turn trying to create viable stadium plans in short order.
The slowing of the relocation deliberations, however, goes deeper than simply doing the math on a stadium financing deal. Though MLB still wants to move the Expos in time for 2004, both a pervasive fear of making a misstep and a still wobbly economy are threatening that timetable.
Baseball executives, particularly Selig, are strongly attuned to history. They are all too aware of the game's error in making baseball in Florida a year-round enterprise, as well as all the factors that drove the Milwaukee Braves, St. Louis Browns, Seattle Pilots and others from those towns more than 30 years ago.
As a result, Selig and the relocation committee realize the rather unique opportunity the Expos present. They will be the first MLB team to move in more than 30 years. And even though plenty of other teams are bleeding red ink and probably could benefit from a new address, it could be three more decades before another club packs the moving vans.
Baseball does not want the Expos to haunt them for a generation, just as the Florida Marlins and Tampa Bay Devil Rays are now doing and will continue to do. This explains why the relocation committee is soliciting bids from basketball towns like Charlotte, N.C., and San Antonio, Texas, that profess no immediate desire for baseball.
"This is an important matter and an important decision for us," Selig said.
But just as the Expos are now formally up for sale and relocation, the economic conditions for financing a stadium project are at their worst levels in more than a decade. Jurisdictions from coast to coast, including both the District and Virginia, have had to close large budget deficits and cut jobs. The voter appetite for supporting public sector dollars for sports facilities is near an all-time low, even though such funds rarely involve general funds. Land costs are soaring in many areas.
"The marketplace is not necessarily thriving," said Expos president Tony Tavares. "Another time, a different economic climate, the situation might be different. But we're still trying to devise a game plan [to move the team]."
So could the Expos still be in Montreal in 2004? Considering this team wouldn't even exist now if Selig had gotten his way with contraction, one can only assume that anything is possible.


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