- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 12, 2003

It has now been more than three decades since the Washington Senators moved to Arlington, Texas, after the 1971 season to become the Texas Rangers. Throughout that period, owners — with the active encouragement of Major League Baseball (MLB) — have repeatedly used the nation’s capital and other potential relocation sites as leverage to extort billions of dollars in ballpark-construction subsidies from state and local governments.

MLB recently refined this long-practiced technique by purchasing the financially beleaguered Montreal Expos and moving itself more directly into extortion process. For the past nine months, MLB’s relocation committee has been dangling the Montreal franchise in front of state and local governments and various ownership groups, which were hoping to relocate the team to Washington, Northern Virginia, Portland, Ore., Charlotte, N.C., San Juan, Puerto Rico, or who-knows-where-else. The goal was to extract the biggest taxpayer subsidy for a state-of-the-art ballpark. That would keep the wallets of the prospective ownership groups sufficiently fat to pay the highest possible extortion price to MLB, which might otherwise be forced to shut down the virtually bankrupt Montreal franchise as soon as the current labor contract expires after the 2006 season.

It now appears that former used-car salesman and current Commissioner Bud Selig and MLB’s owners — who have gotten their collective financial clocks cleaned by the players’ union for decades — may have overplayed their hand. (What a surprise.)

Desperate to achieve as his legacy the return of big-league baseball to the nation’s capital, Mayor Williams seemed willing to pay any price and require taxpayers to bear any burden. To this end, the mayor introduced an ill-advised and overly generous $339 million stadium-financing bill to the D.C. Council in May. The ongoing relocation-extortion process, compounded by MLB’s secretive and glacier-like movements on the matter, became increasingly frustrating to lawmakers, whom MLB expected to rubber-stamp hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes. However, MLB’s strong-arm tactics became so unbearable that Jack Evans, the chairman of the D.C. Council’s finance committee, finally called a halt to the extortion process. Late last month, Mr. Evans announced that he would not permit the mayor’s stadium subsidy proposal to go before the full council without a commitment from MLB to relocate a team to the District. “I’m not moving anything relative to this out of my committee without a commitment from baseball,” Mr. Evans told Eric Fisher of The Washington Times. “There is no purpose moving this ahead, raising taxes and so forth, and then having baseball say, ‘Never mind.’ ” We wholeheartedly concur.

Northern Virginia had essentially told MLB the same thing earlier this year. Meanwhile, the financial situations of Portland and Oregon imploded. Charlotte had dropped out before that. And the idea that San Juan, where the Expos are playing 22 “home” games this year, could become a permanent site for the franchise is a bigger joke than baseball’s labor-negotiating strategies. All that, in effect, left the District bidding against itself.

If MLB wants to become a partner with the nation’s fifth-largest market, it needs to say so — and soon. The goal of the relocation committee throughout its nine-month existence has been to select the relocation site for the Expos by the All-Star Game, which will be played Tuesday. If baseball chooses Washington, then the D.C. Council needs to fashion a ballpark package focusing on basic infrastructure improvements and less on financial extravagance.

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