Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Major League Baseball’s relocation committee met with District officials for seven and a half hours yesterday, delving deeper than ever into the city’s bid for the Montreal Expos.

Meeting in Georgetown for what was by far the city’s longest negotiation with MLB to date, the relocation panel grilled the District about its proposed stadium financing plans, site options and renovation designs for RFK Stadium. After the marathon session, the committee members were led on a tour of RFK Stadium.

“It was an extremely productive meeting, a good exchange of ideas and information,” said Bill Hall, director with the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission. “We view this as very positive.”

Said John McHale Jr., MLB vice president of administration: “It was a good, long productive working session.”

The meeting was one of four high-level sessions the relocation panel intends to have this week as it seeks a new home for the Expos. Northern Virginia’s lobby will meet with baseball today, with Norfolk and Las Vegas on deck.

The two Washington area bids are widely seen as front-runners in the relocation derby and already have been in substantive lease negotiations with baseball for several weeks. Yesterday’s session with the District marked an advancement of those talks as the two sides discussed more details of a prospective lease agreement.

MLB is demanding a fully financed ballpark for the Expos, but to date none of the offers has met with baseball’s full approval. A decision on the team’s new home is expected in mid- to late September, but as always with baseball, the deadline is fluid at best.

“I’ll be the happiest person on Earth when it happens,” commissioner Bud Selig told the YES Network on Monday night.

Representing baseball yesterday were Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf; McHale; MLB general counsel Tom Ostertag; and Rick Weiss, who manages the local law office of Foley & Lardner and also represents MLB. Bob DuPuy, MLB president and another key figure on the relocation committee, received periodic updates from McHale.

The District was led by Mark Tuohey, sports commission chairman; Hall; city administrator Robert Bobb; Deputy Mayor Eric Price; Steve Green and Judi Greenberg from the Office of Planning and Economic Development; and Andy Jack, an attorney for the sports commission. Mayor Anthony Williams stopped by the session briefly to reaffirm his support for the bid.

While baseball repeatedly has missed self-imposed relocation deadlines in its three-year ownership of the Expos, the depth of recent behind-the-scenes activity and the length of yesterday’s meeting suggest a heightened sense of purpose.

“They asked a lot of good questions. It was extremely thorough, very detailed,” Price said. “We plan to continue the discussions in the next couple of days.”

The city’s revised ballpark financing plan has yet to become public but will rely heavily on revenue bonds supported by stadium-related sales taxes and some type of property or revenue tax levied on large District businesses. All four of the site options — the RFK Stadium property, Benjamin Banneker Park in Southwest, New York Avenue NE and M Street SE — remain on the table.

With every passing week without a decision, schedules to renovate RFK Stadium into a temporary baseball venue and prepare for next season get compressed. Both the District and Northern intend to use the 43-year-old facility for three seasons. Several sources familiar with yesterday’s talks said the District continues to make the sense of time urgency a major point of discussion and that MLB executives have heard the message and are taking it to Selig.

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