- The Washington Times - Friday, November 21, 2003

The revived effort in the Norfolk area to attract a major league baseball team should be taken seriously by anyone who still cares or believes the Washington area is still the so-called preferred option for relocating the Montreal Expos.

On the surface, the notion baseball would consider the Hampton Roads area — the 41st media market in the country, with a population nearly equal to one of the Washington area suburban counties — in the same breath as the Washington metro area seems ridiculous.

It doesn’t have the money or the people to compete with Washington and Northern Virginia, and the investment group that surfaced to revive the movement for baseball in Hampton Roads has a long way to go to show it has the financial strength of Fred Malek’s group in Washington or the commitment Bill Collin’s group has shown since 1994 in Northern Virginia.

But there’s something Norfolk does have that may be far more valuable than anything in the effort to bring baseball to Washington — the blessing of the Baltimore Orioles.

Lost in the reports of the renewed baseball movement in Hampton Roads was the fact that in 2002 The Washington Times learned that community leaders in the Norfolk area had sought and received the approval of the Orioles in their pursuit of a major league team.

Orioles spokesman Bill Stetka confirmed that Hampton Roads officials met with the Orioles and were told the Baltimore franchise would not stand in the way of a team being relocated there.

“We had several conversations with the Orioles,” said James Eason, president and CEO of the Hampton Roads Partnership. “We were very appreciative of what they shared with us, and their offer of support.”

The reason they asked for the Orioles’ permission also is cause for pause to take the Hampton Roads baseball movement seriously. The group asked for Peter Angelos’ blessing because, in 2001, it was engaged in secret talks with Jeffrey Loria, then owner of the Expos, to move his franchise to the Hampton Roads area.

“We had conversations with the owners of the Montreal Expos, the Loria group,” Eason said. “Then there was a gag order put on the owners, so there wasn’t any more talk. But they knew we were interested, and they had a number of conversations with people acting on our behalf.”

It’s unlikely Loria has those conversations with Norfolk officials without some sort of approval by the powers that be in baseball. The Hampton Roads area also was visited several times by Corey Busch, Cadillac Bud Selig’s point man in researching prospective relocations sites, and officials there were told by Busch that they were on a “short list” for prospective relocation sites.

A lot of things changed after that. The Hampton Roads Partnership backed off the baseball effort to focus its attention on a transportation referendum for the region. And Loria’s path since then has been well documented, from his deal to sell the Expos to his fellow major league owners for $120 million to his purchase of the Florida Marlins for $158 million from John Henry, who headed a group that bought the Boston Red Sox for $700 million. That led to Loria coming out on top when his Marlins won the World Series last month.

Now, though, a trio of investors in the Norfolk area has declared its intentions to bring baseball to Norfolk — the home of the Class AAA Tidewater Tides, a New York Mets farm club — and met in New York with Bob DuPuy, president and chief operating officer of Major League Baseball, to make the pitch for Norfolk, according to the Virginian-Pilot.

At this week’s owners meeting in Chicago, management sources admitted Norfolk badly trails Washington in population, media market, per capita income and most other key demographic indicators. But they quickly added that Norfolk “is still a lot further from Baltimore.” MLB’s discussions with Norfolk are probing whether there is any potential to form a regionally based franchise in the tradition of Seattle and Denver.

That means that when baseball holds yet another audition for relocation sites — remember the waste of time in Phoenix earlier this year when officials from the District, Northern Virginia and Portland, Ore., met with the fraudulent collection of baseball officials known as the relocation committee — Norfolk will likely be part of the show.

And maybe San Juan, which could be the second home of the Expos again for a split season with Montreal. And maybe Monterrey, Mexico, another bidder for a temporary home for the Expos and also interested in being a permanent location.

And baseball will do all it can to welcome other bidders as well to create the illusion of choices beyond the Washington area, if nothing else.

Or is in an illusion? On the surface, the notion of the Hampton Roads area as a viable location for major league baseball seems ludicrous compared to the Washington area. But then the possibility that baseball would operate the Expos for what now appears to be three years under the ownership of all 29 major league owners — losing millions in the process — and go as far as leaving the country to play some home games for two seasons rather than sell the team to willing buyers in Washington is no less preposterous.

As we have witnessed so many times before, though, logic and reason appear to have little to do with the decision-making process in major league baseball. It’s all about ego, power and influence. That’s why having Peter Angelos as its biggest fan makes Norfolk worth watching closely.

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