- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2003

CHICAGO — Major League Baseball’s relocation committee yesterday began formal planning to move the Montreal Expos for the 2005 season, a timetable now two full years behind the original goal.

The one-hour owners’ meeting marked the panel’s first review of the Expos situation since MLB executives officially gave up on a permanent move for next year and began negotiating another split, temporary schedule.

A final deal with the players’ union to divide the 2004 home schedule between Quebec and San Juan, Puerto Rico, or Monterrey, Mexico, expected since late October, is now due within several days.

The District, Northern Virginia and Portland, Ore., long the only three official bidders for the Expos permanently, now have been joined by smaller newcomers, including Norfolk, Va., Monterrey and San Juan. Other bids also are expected to surface. But in each instance, the primary requirement remains the same: a new, state of the art ballpark built largely with public dollars, said MLB president Bob DuPuy.

“We’re done now [trying to relocate permanently] for 2004,” DuPuy said. “We’re now looking at 2005, and we’ll be contacting the interested parties soon to advance this process.”

While hardly surprising — local baseball boosters have been planning on a 2005 timetable for several months — the 2005 time frame nonetheless heightens the pressure for MLB owners to recoup the $120million they paid for the club in early 2002. The Expos also have amassed more than $40million in operating losses since, with more red ink to come in 2004.

And even that 2005 relocation target is not carved in stone. MLB commissioner Bud Selig said yesterday, as he has for months, that the Expos move will not be governed by strict timetables.

“Things have moved a lot slower than we first expected,” Selig said. “But the idea, first and foremost, is still to get this done right.”

Upon the purchase of the Expos, DuPuy said MLB’s ownership was intended to last only for the 2002 season.

DuPuy, a key figure on the relocation committee, declined to be more specific about what MLB will tell prospective relocation markets in their next conversations. Relocation efforts in the District, Northern Virginia and Portland have slowed to a near halt in recent weeks as local officials await further direction from baseball.

The ongoing delays with the Expos’ status for 2004 and 2005 also continue to hamper the club’s ability to set an operating budget and pursue free agents. Star outfielder and franchise icon Vladimir Guerrero is now on the open market, and until the foreign component of next year’s Expos schedule and revenues from that are set, the team’s bargaining position will be weakened.

DuPuy also said a deal to play some games in Monterrey or San Juan next year could still fall apart, leaving the full 81-game home slate in Montreal. Such a scenario would greatly reduce the Expos’ operating budget for 2004.

The relocation matters highlighted an otherwise routine owners meeting that focused mainly on marketing and Internet efforts and baseball’s drug testing program. The recent disclosure that 5 to 7 percent of MLB player urine samples tested positive for steroids will now introduce a heightened level of testing that, for the first time in baseball, levies penalties on repeat offenders.

Though that steroid policy, which requires five positive tests before resulting in a one-year suspension, has drawn harsh criticism throughout international sport, Selig defended the program. The effort was created only after tense contract negotiations with the union, one of the strongest workers’ groups in the country and a critic of many forms of employee drug testing due to civil liberties concerns.

“We’re now doing something. We’re now dealing with this,” Selig said. “At least we do have a program now. We’re doing a stiffer phase, and it’s a lot better than what we had before.”


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