- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 4, 2004

Major League Baseball owners yesterday approved the relocation of the Montreal Expos to Washington by a 29-1 vote, with Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos standing alone in opposition.

The vote, delayed by MLB commissioner Bud Selig two weeks ago, formalizes baseball’s first franchise move in more than 33 years. The approval, the result of a short conference call among the owners, is subject to numerous conditions — most notably ratification by the D.C. Council of a public financing package for a planned stadium near the Anacostia River waterfront in Southeast.

“This is another important step in finalizing the relocation of the Montreal Expos to Washington, D.C.,” Selig said in a statement. “We are looking forward to finishing the last few steps, including the sale of the ballclub, and the rebirth of the club as the Washington Nationals.”

Neither the owners’ overwhelming approval nor Angelos’ objection was surprising, but the vote count represented a rare lack of total unanimity from the owners. Selig typically does not bring issues up for formal vote unless he is reasonably confident of unanimous assent.

The relocation issue, however, is anything but typical. Not only is this baseball’s first team move in more than three decades — a span during which 22 NHL, NFL and NBA teams shifted cities — the vote also arrives on the tense backdrop of still incomplete compensation talks with Angelos.

Lawyers for MLB and Angelos have negotiated a loose framework of a hefty financial benefits package that will provide the Orioles owner with guarantees to his annual local revenue and future resale value, as well as a majority stake in a planned regional sports television network. The two sides have yet to agree on how long the benefits will last, but negotiations are continuing at a steady pace. At least two meetings between Angelos and MLB president Bob DuPuy have been held this week.

Angelos declined to comment yesterday, but industry sources said he did not make any significant statements during the conference call. He has long argued the presence of a Washington area team would economically damage the Orioles, perhaps irreparably.

To that end, Russell Smouse, Orioles general counsel, released a statement referencing “the dramatic adverse impact of that relocation on our team.”

“Major League Baseball said they would devise a plan to address our issues and those of the Maryland Stadium Authority [which operates Camden Yards],” Smouse’s statement said. “The Orioles and the Stadium Authority have relied on those representations. Notwithstanding those assurances by Major League Baseball, we remain without a resolution. Nevertheless, our discussions with Major League Baseball are ongoing.”

Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich warned earlier this week that without an agreement soon, the matter could end up in court. A deal with Angelos, assuming one is struck, likely would come before the owners for approval at their next quarterly meeting Jan.12-13 in Arizona.

In the interim, economic competition between Washington and Baltimore already has spiked. The Orioles announced plans Monday to put single-game tickets for next season on sale Dec.11, nearly two months earlier than usual. The move was motivated heavily by the arrival of the Nationals, who have sold more than 16,000 season tickets in less than three weeks.

By terms of MLB’s contract with the District, owners had until Monday to approve the relocation.

The D.C. Council is scheduled to conduct its second of two votes on the ballpark financing Dec.14. The first vote four days ago generated a 6-4 approval, with three abstentions. Final approval to the stadium legislation must arrive by Dec.31.

Council chairman Linda W. Cropp yesterday applauded the owners’ vote but said she hopes it will further encourage MLB executives “to sit down earnestly” to discuss potential changes to the relocation agreement.

Cropp is seeking several alterations to the pact, including the sharing of stadium cost overruns should they occur and greater financial protection for the city should the stadium project fall behind schedule through no fault of its own.

Selig said Thursday he had directed his staff to schedule a meeting with Cropp and Mayor Anthony A. Williams to discuss the city’s concerns, but he also said repeatedly, “The deal we made is a deal.”

During the council’s approval Tuesday, Cropp led the passage of three key amendments, including ones that mandated a search for private financing as a potential means to lower the city’s investment in the stadium, and another that forces a search for a cheaper ballpark site if cost estimates for a stadium at the Southeast parcel exceed $631million.

Nationals president Tony Tavares said yesterday the vote would not have a major impact on his day-to-day work.

“This is no doubt a very important move for baseball, but it doesn’t affect us directly,” Tavares said. “We’re moving forward, getting ready for the start of the season, and that is our singular focus.”

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