- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 22, 2004

Northern Virginia’s bid for baseball has been considered dead more times than Jason from the “Friday the 13th” movies.

First Bill Collins was stiffed in the 1995 expansion derby. Then it was considered a second choice when a revitalized downtown Washington became engaged in the race for the Montreal Expos in 1999. It was on life support when Arlington County told baseball boosters last year to look anywhere else for a stadium site.

And Northern Virginia was considered roadkill, literally, when it announced plans to build a stadium in Loudoun County, more than 20 traffic-choked miles from downtown.

But despite all these body blows, Northern Virginia remains not only alive in its race against the District for the Expos but also is supplying much of the drama and intrigue to Major League Baseball’s endless soap opera. The bid is by far the hardest to judge on its merits, or how it truly stands with baseball’s decision makers.

A long, rich history of successful urban ballparks suggests Northern Virginia has no business propagating such a thoroughly suburban bid, complete with a man-made lake and resort-type architecture. The lack of an interim venue in its own jurisdiction is troubling. MLB executives, should they pick Northern Virginia, would need to turn right around and negotiate with the jilted District to lease RFK Stadium.

Also troubling is the still-uncertain state of land acquisition efforts to piece together the 450-acre Diamond Lake complex.

“There was a period of time where Northern Virginia was definitely out in front,” said Marc Ganis, a Chicago sports consultant who often works with MLB owners. “But there are greater questions now about whether they can pull everything together.”

The commonwealth’s ability to access ballpark-related tax revenues to service construction bonds expires at the end of the year.

But perhaps taking a page from Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope tactics, Northern Virginia boosters are convinced they will win the Expos derby. They are not alone. Even with the District likely retaining a slight edge in the ever-evolving chase, there is still a group of owners and relocation committee members who believe Northern Virginia is a more palatable option.

The Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority continues to work hard and spend significant money maintaining the chase. The board met again last week, conferring in closed session for more than three hours with prospective team owner Collins and developers from the Diamond Lake consortium to update its bid. The authority — like officials from the District, Norfolk and Las Vegas — will meet with MLB relocation committee members by the end of the month.

“We are at an end-game stage,” said Keith Frederick, stadium authority chairman. “We are actively moving forward to put forth a productive and doable plan. There is a real sense of urgency.”

However, the key question is: Why is Northern Virginia a better choice to some of the decision-makers? The prevailing answer appears to be to protect Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos. Even if Angelos stands staunchly opposed to any team in greater Washington, the Northern Virginia bid allows baseball to get at the riches of the local market while keeping a greater distance from Baltimore.

If in fact Angelos is the anchor causing this process to drag on, the distance is a valuable asset to have and the reason Collins bellowed “I urge Peter Angelos to endorse this site” at a press conference two months ago.

“I have a great affection for Peter Angelos — there’s no question about that,” said MLB commissioner Bud Selig at last week’s owners’ meetings in Philadelphia.

But nowhere in the broader sentiment is there a clear declaration of Northern Virginia’s bid being uniformly superior to what has been offered in the District. For every commonwealth volley eastward about the District’s refusal to disclose its ballpark financing plan and curious stadium cost estimates, the city fires back with a comment about Virginia’s lack of rail access to the Loudoun site and high ballpark lease payments awaiting the new team owner. Hence the heated baseball civil war that has gone on for months.

And in that civil war, the winner will claim an ugly victory at best — at least in the short term. The prevailing entity will inherit an Expos franchise with a rather barren farm system, little star power and an active roster nearly to the point of open revolt over the unconscionable abuse the club has suffered at MLB’s hand.

Baseball’s ongoing delays to make its relocation choice only complicate the process. With every passing week, the ability to recreate the Expos in their new home is compacted. MLB executives insist the team will be moved in time for next season. But the likely scenario now is a massive rush job to prepare for Opening Day that will leave many important tasks undone.

“It’s an enormously daunting task. Even if they made their choice today, you’re looking at 24-hour [work] days, or as close to it as possible,” said Ganis, who aided in the St. Louis Rams’ frenetic move from Los Angeles in 1995. “People will have to make choices and simply lower their expectations as to what’s in place come Opening Day.

“But the critical thing is that when [the move] does happen, you must have every stakeholder rowing in the same direction. If that’s not happening, then much, much less gets done.”

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