- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 22, 2003

There is a growing feeling among industry insiders that Major League Baseball will likely elect to wait yet another year to relocate the Montreal Expos.

As recently as last week, MLB president Bob DuPuy said naming a new home for the MLB-owned Expos by the July 15 All-Star Game, just 54 days from now, remains baseball’s goal.

But at the same time, concerns over stadium financing in each of the relocation candidate areas, an ongoing lawsuit involving former owners of the Expos and continued overtures from Puerto Rico, the Expos’ home-away-from-home, have led MLB officials to consider contingency plans should owners not be ready to make a decision.

And that has many among the local pursuit for the Expos more nervous than ever.

“There is no reason to believe that they can’t get this done [by July 15],” said Gabe Paul Jr., executive director of the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority. “But ‘can’ versus ‘will’? I just don’t know.”

Earlier this month, Commissioner Bud Selig also invited San Juan, Puerto Rico, where the Expos will play 22 home games this season, to make a late pitch to MLB’s relocation committee about housing the team permanently.

So why might MLB — after losing tens of millions owning the Expos, creating a formal relocation committee, sifting through reams of market research and demanding hundreds of millions of public dollars be earmarked for stadium construction — elect to wait until 2005 to move the franchise?

There are three key reasons.

First, stadium financing remains incomplete in the three relocation candidate areas — the District, Northern Virginia and Portland, Ore. The District and Portland are just starting to bring stadium financing bills through the legislative process. Virginia has the shell of a $285million public financing package in place through existing bonding authority, but it wants MLB to make a conditional promise that the Expos are headed to the commonwealth before it completes legislation for stadium bonds and negotiations for site acquisition.

The relocation committee, led by DuPuy and Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, has made no secret of its demand to see solid stadium financing and siting in place before making its decision. But what has developed in recent months is a sort of chicken-and-egg game in which both sides are looking for more concrete action from the other side before making bold steps of their own.

Still, District leaders are trying to fast-track a $338.7million financing package for passage by July1. But that target also remains uncertain. A hearing of the council’s finance committee on the city’s Ballpark Revenue Amendment Act of 2003 is scheduled for June12.

“I have no doubt that baseball wants to find a permanent solution just as soon as possible,” said Expos president Tony Tavares. “But I also think they are sitting back and seeing what happens legislatively in each of the candidate areas. They don’t want to go into an area where a [new] stadium isn’t going to happen.”

Second, a racketeering lawsuit involving former Expos owner Jeffrey Loria, his limited partners and MLB is unresolved. The limited partners already have won the right to 90 days notice before the Expos actually move anywhere, time that would allow the partners to file a restraining order against the move or other legal challenge.

DuPuy and other MLB officials, certain that the lawsuit is without merit, do not see this mandated window of time as a problem. Even with a July15 relocation announcement, the team would not be sold and actually moved until fall or winter.

But waiting another year before relocating the Expos would provide time for the litigation to conclude. The case is scheduled to go to arbitration in October.

“There’s no question that case has to have some role in this,” said Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports industry consultant. “You have to remember these relocation decisions are marathons, not a sprint. It’s such a big decision. It affects not only the Expos, but every other team in the league.”

Third, baseball’s Puerto Rico experiment has exceeded expectations to date, eased the team’s fiscal losses and could warrant more games. Attendance for the first set of games there has averaged 14,282, more than 35 percent better than the team’s average to date in Montreal.

Promoter Antonio Munoz, who guaranteed MLB $7million to hold 22 Expos games on the island, says he is close to recouping that money. Munoz also made a preliminary offer, along similar terms, for more games in Puerto Rico next year.

“Going back to Puerto Rico is one option,” DuPuy said last week.

Some baseball sources, however, do not take Selig’s invitation for a Puerto Rico-based bid for a permanent team as much more than good manners and gratitude for hospitality shown thus far.

As a result, many involved in the Expos’ relocation race are taking MLB at its word and are trying to remain optimistic.

“A feeling of pessimism [about the timetable for a move] is not unfair,” said Bobby Goldwater, president of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission. “But they seem to still be dedicated about moving for 2004, and so are we. I still think there is a desire to do this sooner rather than later.”

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