- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2003

CHICAGO.

What is so special about Chicago, anyway? Why can’t Washington get even one baseball team when Chicago has two?

The Cubs are a treasure, but the White Sox? You can barely find their box scores in the papers here. They play seventh banana in this town, behind the Bears, Cubs, Bulls, Blackhawks, the life and times of Michael Jordan and the corked bats of Sammy Sosa.

Unlike the Cubs, the White Sox do not play in a baseball cathedral.

Not a tear would be shed over the loss of the new Comiskey (now called U.S. Cellular Field). This ballpark, the site of tomorrow’s All-Star Game, is the joke of the ballpark revival era. It was built within a year of Camden Yards but has none of the allure and charm of that park or the retro parks that followed it. It might as well have been built at the same time as Veterans Stadium. RFK might be a better place to see baseball.

The White Sox aren’t coming to Washington, though, and no one knows if or when the Montreal Expos, baseball’s orphan franchise, will be coming, either.

There are decision makers within Major League Baseball who want the Expos’ status to be resolved as soon as possible. They want the team moved to a new, permanent home in time for next season.

But the only decision maker who counts is Cadillac Bud Selig, and the commissioner is not yet ready to move the process forward.

“Selig has a history of taking his time on important decisions — and not-so-important decisions, too,” one ownership source said. “My guess is that the team will be in Montreal and Puerto Rico next year.”

This is his “guess” because no one knows what will happen, which is one of the reasons that Cadillac Bud is not expected to bring this issue to a vote among owners anytime soon — regardless of whether the relocation committee recommend anything during the All-Star break.

Even Cadillac Bud doesn’t know what will happen. Cadillac Bud never puts such matters before the owners until he is sure all his ducks are in a row, and right now the ducks still are quacking around in all different directions.

There are a number of owners, such as the Colorado Rockies’ Jerry McMorris and the lawyer up the road in Baltimore, who remain convinced that “contraction” is not a bargaining tool but a real option to strengthen their business.

The low sale price of the Anaheim Angels ($180 million) did nothing to dispel the belief of some owners that baseball should just keep the Expos on life support until the current labor agreement expires in 2007. Then, the thinking goes, they again can take up the notion of eliminating the team.

Other owners would like to let their options percolate. Simmering in the background is the notion that a team should be put in northern New Jersey. There are no ownership groups clamoring to do so, and no government officials there have so far expressed any desire to pursue it.

But the notion has been sitting there a long time. In 1985, the New Jersey Sports and Exhibition Authority, during one of baseball’s expansion pushes, offered not only to build a ballpark but to guarantee revenues as well.

There is a faction of owners that sees a team in New Jersey as a more effective way to get the Yankees under control than the luxury tax that George Steinbrenner has seen fit to ignore. And one of the owners who has been privately lobbying baseball to court and nurture northern New Jersey? The lawyer up in Baltimore.

Right now, though, the only options are the District, Northern Virginia and Portland, Ore. — though some would tell you the District really is the only option.

But anyone who says or writes that they know this — or any absolute truths about the future of the Expos — is a fool, or worse, a fraud.

To dismiss Northern Virginia as a viable option is misguided, to put it kindly.

When this notion was put to one management source, he said, “It was Northern Virginia that got the owners interested in Washington again in the first place,” referring to the 1995 presentation by Bill Collins during the last expansion process.

It was a fresh approach, after numerous failed attempts by the District to bring baseball back to the area. There are owners who remain sold on that presentation and who still think Marion Barry is the mayor of Washington.

The District’s latest effort and the Fred Malek ownership group have gone a long way to dispel that notion, but it still remains in some corners, a management source said.

The recent antics of the Tony Williams administration haven’t helped. Neither did the little bad-cop tirade of city councilman Jack Evans about how baseball can either take it or leave it.

Baseball had a big laugh at that one, as if anyone really believes that Washington, after spending the last 31 years begging for a franchise and spending millions of dollars, is suddenly going to walk away from a chance to get a major league baseball team.

You think owners are quivering in fear of Jack Evans?

When White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf — a powerful owner and a member of the relocation committee — threatened to move his team to St. Petersburg, Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson had the clock stopped in the state legislature at 11:59 p.m. to avoid a midnight deadline to pass a financing plan for the new ballpark.

When a sales-tax increase to finance Cadillac Bud’s new ballpark in Milwaukee twice was voted down in the Wisconsin senate by one vote, a senator was called into Gov. Tommy Thompson’s office for a lengthy late night meeting. At 2 a.m., he came out of the meeting and announced that he was changing his vote.

Three hours later, the senate approved the tax hike.

Evans’ bravado may have made everyone in D.C. feel good, but one owner kindly referred to it as “counterproductive.” And before anyone pins a medal on Evans for his moral outrage against baseball’s hardball tactics with the District, let’s remember this is the city councilman who once declared it “Don King Day” in Washington.

Now compare baseball’s political experience with the District to that of its relationship with Virginia politicians. Three successive governors — George Allen, James Gilmore and now Mark Warner, a former partner of Collins’ in the Virginia Baseball group — have actively supported baseball in Northern Virginia. All have either met with Cadillac Bud or been in contact with him to express support.

And if the proximity of the Orioles to Washington still is a significant factor in the decision-making process, then Northern Virginia still is in play.

District baseball supporters refuse to acknowledge this, but the Potomac River is like the Great Wall. If you live and work in suburban Maryland — the battleground for fans between Washington and Baltimore — where are you more likely to go see a baseball game? Just inside the District line on New York Avenue or in Arlington?

All of this is not to make the case for Northern Virginia. It is to make the case that the only market that is a lock right now is Uncertainty, USA, and the longer this process goes on, the stronger Uncertainty gets.

Delay opens the door for all sorts of possibilities — even Portland.

If that sounds ridiculous, consider that before Jeffrey Loria pawned off the Expos on his fellow owners, he had discussions with Norfolk officials about moving the team there. And Loria doesn’t engage in those talks without the approval of Major League Baseball.

Norfolk, thankfully, has backed off its quest for a team, opting to build roads instead of stadiums. But there could be other Norfolks if this process is allowed to go on another year.

That is why, despite the political difficulties, this was the time to make baseball an offer it couldn’t refuse, a time to wipe Uncertainty off the map.


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