- The Washington Times - Monday, July 7, 2003

Charlie Brotman knows a few things about the District’s 32-year quest to bring Major League Baseball back to the city.

There was the time in late 1973 the San Diego Padres almost moved to town. There were the pushes to get an expansion team in 1976, 1987, 1991 and 1995. There was the nearly finished deal, also in 1995, that would have relocated the Houston Astros to Northern Virginia.

Most recently, there were the bids last year from groups in the District and Northern Virginia to buy the orphaned Montreal Expos.

Mr. Brotman was there each time, serving on a steering committee, formally promoting the city’s efforts, or simply talking up the District’s passion for baseball.

This time, he insists, is different. Much different.

“This is the closest I think we’ve ever come to attracting a real, live team,” said Mr. Brotman, a public relations executive who served as a public address announcer for the Washington Senators in the late 1950s and 1960s. “It seems like we’ve been teased a hundred times, and the mere mention of [a team moving to] Washington has helped build more than a half-dozen new parks elsewhere.

“But there are people here who have absolutely refused to let this dream die, and I think we’re finally on the cusp.”

Perhaps. A relocation committee formed by Major League Baseball (MLB) is expected to deliver its recommendation on the future of the Expos by July 15, completing a nine-month formal review of the franchise’s options.

Baseball’s stated goal is to find a permanent home for the Expos, who are now owned by MLB, for the 2004 season. The three primary candidates to get the team are the District, Northern Virginia and Portland, Ore.

The decision, however, comes with more questions than it proposes to answer:

• Is baseball really ready to settle the long-running feud between D.C. baseball boosters and Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos?

• If the committee’s recommendation is for the Expos to split time between Quebec and Puerto Rico, as the team is doing this season, can baseball sustain the relocation push for yet another year?

• And, most bluntly, is the District’s long, arduous wait for baseball truly coming to an end?

“I just don’t know,” said Pat Malone, president of the Washington Senators fan club. “I’ve been involved in this effort for 25 years, and I’ve seen people come and people go. But Major League Baseball is still in a state of flux, and I have a gut feeling they’re going to hold off again.”

A long road

It has taken baseball literally a generation to prepare itself to move a team.

For many years, MLB’s leadership, particularly Commissioner Bud Selig, openly opposed any relocations. Such moves were the province of “lesser” leagues such as the NFL and NBA, each of which allowed teams to relocate during the 1990s.

In baseball, tradition reigned — until the economic plight of the Expos became simply too great to ignore.

Once a solid, if second-tier, franchise, the Expos slipped into oblivion after the players’ strike of 1994-95 cut short the club’s best and last chance to win a National League pennant. Fans stopped coming to games, ownership refused to keep star players under contract and losses mounted both on and off the field.

By 1999, the Expos easily ranked last in baseball in attendance and local revenue.

In July 2000, a blue-ribbon panel appointed by Mr. Selig to study baseball’s economics suggested moving some teams as a measure to help ailing franchises. Mr. Selig, as a result, reconsidered his opposition to relocation.

However, two years of labor warfare, during which the owners proposed and dropped the idea of eliminating two teams, pushed relocation to the back burner.

Once labor peace was secured last summer, Mr. Selig formed the relocation committee to handle the still-unresolved Expos situation — the first organized program to settle the issue.

That committee spent the past nine months studying the three relocation candidates. It heard formal presentations from city officials and pressured each jurisdiction to put its best stadium deal, with the largest possible public-sector contribution, on the table.

“There’s no question:The sooner stadium financing is fully realized, the better off we’ll all be,” MLB President Bob DuPuy said in March.

Once baseball selects a market for the Expos, it will decide who will own the team. Current candidates include D.C. financier Fred Malek, former Virginia telecommunications executive William Collins and Long Island real estate developer Mark Broxmeyer.

Teasing the District

It’s similarly taken the District years to be fully ready for baseball again. Aside from the near-miss with the Padres and a brief run for an expansion team in 1976, the District spent much of the 1970s and 1980s pursuing baseball without vigor.

That changed in the late 1980s.

A clause in the 1985 labor deal between owners and players allowed the National League to expand by two teams. That was later amended to allow two expansions of two teams each, split between the American and National leagues. The race for a team was officially on.

The expansion derbies allowed the D.C. area to market its transformation.

Between 1971 and 1995, the D.C. metro area’s population more than doubled, income and housing values soared, and the employment base mushroomed from its roots in government and law to include all areas of high technology, media and telecommunications.

“The growth of this area has been absolutely tremendous, and [its] something that makes the viability of this area to support a team not even a question,” said Mr. Collins, chairman of the Virginia Baseball Club and one of the key figures in reviving the D.C. area’s hopes for baseball during the mid-1990s.

His pitches, however, repeatedly fell on deaf ears.

Baseball bypassed the District in favor of Miami and Denver in the first expansion, with those teams beginning play in 1993. Phoenix and Tampa, Fla., were awarded teams in the second round and started play five years later. A deal to move the Houston Astros to Northern Virginia to begin play in the 1996 season was scuttled by MLB executives, who acquiesced to Mr. Selig’s reluctance to move a team.

The circumstances in each near-miss for the District were different. There were, however, two constants: heartbreak in the District and resistance from the Baltimore Orioles.

Orioles owner Peter Angelos vehemently opposed the placement of a team in the D.C. area, and he still does. Many other owners, witnessing the struggles that Chicago and the Bay area had supporting two teams, also were reluctant.

“My objective is to make sure that the existing franchises are healthy and continue to be healthy,” Mr. Selig said in 1999.

A new pitch

The Baltimore issue still has not been definitively addressed by MLB, though there is speculation that Mr. Angelos will receive a monetary payout to offset losses in broadcast revenue if the Expos move to the D.C. area.

Bidding groups in the District and Northern Virginia, however, point out that the combined D.C. and Baltimore metro areas contain more than 8 million people, a total nearly as large as the population of greater Chicago. They also point to the surging spending power of D.C.-area residents and to numerous internal studies that show minor support of the Orioles from the greater D.C. area.

MLB executives have encouraged the District’s hopes over the past 18 months. Early last year, Mr. Selig called the District “the prime candidate” for relocation. Mr. DuPuy said in April 2002 that baseball in the District was “inevitable.”

Fueled by those unprecedented comments, the District and Northern Virginia hurriedly sought to advance proposals to build a ballpark, knowing that a solid stadium package would be the leading factor in landing the Expos.

The District’s bid is centered on a prospective stadium site along New York Avenue NE — a rundown area being eyed for aggressive development and the site of a future Metro stop. A $338.7 million public-sector financing package, helping to fund a $436 million stadium, would depend primarily on taxes from ballpark-related commerce and a tax on the gross receipts of large D.C. businesses.

Northern Virginia, touting a $400 million stadium plan with $285 million in public-sector support, plans to fund it in part with a tax on the income of ballplayers from visiting teams. Other elements include ballpark-related sales taxes and rental income from a planned retail center at the ballpark.

The state, home to the region’s most robust economic growth of the late 1990s, also is eyeing potential income from taxes on nearby hotel stays and car rentals.

Each jurisdiction plans to have a team play at RFK Stadium for three seasons while a new ballpark is under construction.

The site and financing packages from either jurisdiction is nowhere near completion. But in recent months, Virginia’s baseball bid has particularly struggled.

In March, the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority announced five prospective stadium sites, three of which were in Arlington. Within days of that announcement, anti-development activists rallied against the proposals, and the landowners of those sites made their strong opposition known.

The owner of the authority’s preferred site in Pentagon City, the Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, wrote two terse letters to MLB’s central office, team owners and stadium authority executives seeking removal of their land from any list of prospective stadium sites.

“We remain confident we will be able to negotiate a [land] deal,” said Gabe Paul, stadium authority executive director.

Applying pressure

For much of the 32-year wait for baseball, the District has done what MLB executives asked with little questioning. Whether it be traffic studies, economic impact reports, community forums, public rallies or formal presentations, local leaders dutifully carried out baseball’s wishes.

Now, with just days before MLB’s decision, patience wearing thin.

Many within baseball believe that the Expos will return next season to Puerto Rico, where they are playing 22 “home” games this season. Backed by a $7 million guarantee from promoter Antonio Munoz, the Puerto Rico experiment has boosted the Expos’ average attendance, cut fiscal losses and introduced baseball to the Caribbean market that MLB executives want to explore further.

In fact, Mr. Selig in May invited San Juan to make a late pitch to the relocation committee to become a permanent home for the Expos.

The invitation was meant as a goodwill gesture for hospitality shown, but it ignited the anger of politicians in the District and Virginia. Each demanded a firm commitment from MLB to move the Expos to the area before proceeding with public-sector financing or site work.

Virginia made that demand several months ago, but the District’s demand arrived less than two weeks ago, accompanied by significant frustration and vitriol.

“There’s no question this demand for public financing is directly predicated on driving up the franchise price,” said D.C. Council member Jack Evans. As chairman of the council’s Finance Committee, Mr. Evans is the current gatekeeper of the District’s public stadium financing. “It creates a terrible negotiating posture for any city.”

Mayor Anthony A. Williams supported Mr. Evans’ hard-line posture, though the mayor does harbor concerns about the District’s overplaying its position with baseball. John McHale, MLB chief administrative officer, is now seeking to meet with Mr. Evans to reach some common understanding.

Virginia, meanwhile, through Gov. Mark Warner, has echoed in recent days its desire for a conditional award of the Expos.

“We think it’s been great,” Mr. Paul said. “It shows he’s still certainly committed to baseball in Virginia, but also will be a battler.”

But does baseball get the message?

“[This is] certainly not baseball’s preference, but it’s political reality,” said Michael Frey, Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority chairman. “You have to remember they haven’t done [a team relocation] in a long time. They’re still learning, I think, that reality.”

Keeping hope alive

There are as many good reasons for baseball to relocate the Expos immediately as there are to wait another year.

Delaying relocation another year would allow baseball more time to determine what it truly wants — and some baseball insiders believe the relocation committee isn’t even close to that basic determination.

It also would give baseball more time for the economy — as well as MLB’s still-unsettled fiscal outlook — to improve. MLB executives have made it clear they desire to get more than the $120 million they paid for the Expos last year.

Delaying a decision also would allow more time to resolve a legal challenge made by a group of Quebec-based former partners of the Expos. The group, pursuing racketeering charges against MLB and former Expos owner Jeffrey Loria, threatened to file an injunction blocking a move of the team while the litigation is active. An arbitration hearing on the matter is scheduled for this fall.

Making the move now, of course, solves the Expos question after nearly 10 years of uncertainty and begins the franchise’s new, more fiscally secure life. And if the move works according to plan, it also would rapidly turn the Expos from a team receiving funds under baseball’s newly increased revenue sharing to one paying out funds to lesser clubs.

Much more pressing, an immediate decision also would protect baseball from losing the Washington market forever. Mr. Evans said last month he would not entertain a return of the District’s ballpark bill next year, an election season for him and five others on the D.C. Council. He added this was baseball’s “one chance” to return to the District, a feeling shared by many around town.

“If we don’t get it this time, it will be decades, perhaps longer, before this chance will come around again,” Mr. Brotman said.

Mr. Malek, seeking a team in the District, agrees that baseball almost certainly will fail to get the same fever-pitch reaction from greater Washington this time next year if the Expos are still playing as nomads.

“I think it would be very damaging if they choose to wait,” Mr. Malek said. “In any deal, business, political or otherwise, a certain momentum builds. If that momentum is thwarted, you’ve essentially let the air out of the balloon, and it’s very hard to reinflate that. A delay would greatly reduce the chances of Washington ever getting a team.”

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