Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Yet another Major League Baseball owners meeting will come and go this week without a relocation decision on the Montreal Expos. But beneath the endless string of missed deadlines and broken promises, MLB executives are deep into detailed stadium negotiations with both the District and Northern Virginia.

With little fanfare or publicity, both Washington-area camps are negotiating term sheets with baseball that outline plans to build a new ballpark and lease it to the Expos. Whether and when MLB will sign either set of documents remains a mystery. But it is clear from both sides of the Potomac River that talks with baseball have advanced much further than at any previous point.

The Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority has hired the law firm of Piper Rudnick to aid its lease negotiations and is preparing a formal report on its efforts to the General Assembly. The report to Richmond, as well as a 30-day window, are required before signing any formal lease documents. The District also is discussing specific lease terms with MLB.

“We’re exchanging term sheets with baseball, finishing our proposal,” said Keith Frederick, VBSA chairman. “For us, it’s still very active. Things are definitely happening.”

Said Bill Hall, chairman of D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission’s baseball committee: “We are deep into continuing dialogue with [baseball]. We are into heavy talks on both the new stadium and the temporary use of RFK [Stadium].”

Baseball’s two-pronged talks are the negotiating equivalent of dating two people at the same time. But a District source said “it is unclear which of us is getting to the bedroom first.”

Significant questions, however, still dog each bid. District officials have not released the latest stadium financing plan, which calls for a significant contribution from the city’s business sector through a reintroduction of the arena tax that helped fund MCI Center.

Northern Virginia baseball boosters, meanwhile, decline to say how much of the 450-acre site sought near Dulles International Airport is actually under contract. The District also would need to acquire land or revise lease terms with the National Park Service depending on the ballpark site it picks. But Virginia stadium authority officials wrote to MLB in May saying developers working on the Dulles ballpark project controlled “most” of the land in question, a situation that has yet to be confirmed.

The other candidates for the Expos — Las Vegas; Portland, Ore.; Norfolk; and Monterrey, Mexico — still are technically in the running. But the quartet is not believed to be in the same kind of advanced stadium talks as the Washington-area bids. MLB commissioner Bud Selig removed San Juan, Puerto Rico, from consideration last month.

MLB owners, meeting today and tomorrow in Philadelphia, will hear an update from the relocation committee. But no vote on the team’s future is scheduled.

Baseball executives, in obliterating another target date for an Expos decision, have not offered any new, concrete timetable. But industry sources said the latest hope is to have word within four to six weeks. The wait for a decision, however, could extend into October.

Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, stridently opposed to a Washington-area team, remains a definite concern in the Expos discussion, though recent reports have conflicted sharply as to how much influence he will have in the final decision.

Despite the lack of tangible movement on the Expos’ front, three significant MLB issues will be voted on at the Philadelphia meetings. Selig will receive a three-year contract extension, moving the end of his term from December 2006 to 2009. Selig, 70, intended to retire after the current pact. But with fan interest in the game surging, economic indicators improving sharply and labor negotiations set to resume in two years, owners have little stomach to pursue a potentially disruptive search for Selig’s replacement. The vote for the extension is expected to be unanimous.

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