Friday, May 28, 2004

The baseball rivalry between the District and Northern Virginia is back.

Though never fully extinguished, the local feud lay dormant for many months only to be reawakened by repeated suggestions within baseball circles that the District will win the relocation race for the Montreal Expos despite Virginia’s late attempt to place a ballpark near Dulles International Airport.

Several industry sources familiar with Major League Baseball’s relocation process now believe the District and Northern Virginia are the only meaningful competitors left in the battle. And that has quickly toughened the level of talk among local politicians, baseball advocates and fans.

MLB executives say the Expos’ new home will be determined by midsummer, pushing both sides to seek any final advantage possible.

Though officials for the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority insist the Dulles site is not their only option, it enables them to use as a key talking point the increased distance from Baltimore and the objections of Orioles owner Peter Angelos.

“We believe the Orioles have a legitimate concern about locating a team in the District,” said Brian Hannigan, stadium authority spokesman. “We’ve gone to considerable lengths to show the attendance patterns differentiating based on a team in Virginia versus D.C., and that won’t change.”

Added Jerry Burkot, spokesman for the prospective Northern Virginia ownership group led by William Collins: “We’re talking about the economic heart of the region.”

Jack Evans, chairman of the D.C. Council’s finance committee, predictably disagreed.

“If baseball were to go to Dulles, it would only show me the entire [relocation] process is a fraud,” Evans said. “If you ask a hundred urban planners where to put a ballpark, all 100 are going to say in the city. I told the relocation committee when they were here [May 6] Virginia didn’t have a site any closer than Dulles, and look what’s happened.”

The neighboring jurisdictions long have endured a hot-and-cold relationship on baseball. Both sides acknowledge the work the other has done to point MLB’s attention to the region. Each area needs fans from the other to support a team. Virginia intends to play in the District’s RFK Stadium while a new ballpark is built.

But both the District and Northern Virginia long have viewed each other as a primary threat, and each rarely misses opportunities to disparage the other.

The Dulles stadium plan highlights the dichotomy between the two local proposals. The District bid obviously centers on an urban setting for a ballpark, either on the grounds of RFK Stadium or at one of three proposed downtown locations.

Northern Virginia, conversely, largely has abandoned trying to replicate that central-city feel just over the Potomac River in Arlington. After several years of focusing its energies on Pentagon City, government and landowner resistance have thwarted those plans, and the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority is now seeking to create a massive ballpark complex near the intersection of the Dulles Toll Road and Route 28.

The plan calls to build more than 5million square feet of retail, office and residential space. Several adjacent youth ballfields and a man-made lake also are part of the design. But the location, near the border of Loudoun and Fairfax counties, remains decidedly suburban and at least a decade or two away from gaining rail access.

Stadium authority officials are expected to announce their plans for the Dulles site in early June and come armed with traffic studies showing the much-discussed traffic issues near and along Route 28 to be overstated. Meanwhile, each of greater Washington’s other competitors recently have run into significant hurdles. A clause in the new contract extension for Expos second baseman Jose Vidro allows him to void the deal and become a free agent should the team move outside the continental United States. Such language protecting Montreal’s only remaining star provides a major challenge to Monterrey, Mexico.

MLB executives last week showed themselves as perhaps more conflicted about Las Vegas and its legalized gambling than the ongoing Washington-Angelos saga. A modern stadium plan, using glass as a central design element, gives Las Vegas an appropriate amount of sizzle. But many baseball insiders do not believe the game is ready to trade one endless headache for another potential one. Members of Las Vegas’ prospective ownership group have begun to lessen their focus solely on the Expos and are taking a long-term view.

Norfolk made news this week by starting a campaign to obtain season ticket and luxury box commitments. The effort is designed to address the very concern that has dogged Hampton Roads from the start: that the region is not large enough to support a team. Prior ticket drives there for NHL and NBA teams have all ended badly.

Portland, Ore., last year raced out to a strong early lead by formally approving about $14million worth of stadium financing. But the city lost its primary edge last week when MLB President Bob DuPuy said it was no longer necessary for an Expos competitor to have its stadium financing fully ratified to be in advance of its selection.

Instead, it is now expected the Expos choice will be made contingent on government officials finalizing stadium financing within a short period of time. Oregon baseball boosters are beginning to look to the Oakland Athletics, who also need a new stadium and could move to Portland without requiring divisional realignment.

“It’s in the best interest of everybody to make a commitment together,” Evans said. “They say we’re getting the team, and we absolutely can deliver on the stadium. I’m absolutely glad to see they recognize that fact. It’s a smart move.”

And there remains another major caveat. If baseball does not relocate the Expos to Washington or Northern Virginia, it loses its cherished leverage market for years, and perhaps forever. After years of being teased by baseball, area politicians and prospective ownership groups have all girded back up for this one last push.

Baseball efforts in both jurisdictions will disband in some form should the Expos move elsewhere. Should that happen, a move of another team or a revival of a local proposal is not expected anytime in the foreseeable future.

Even with DuPuy’s recent comments, Virginia intends to make financing a debated issue.

“Where is the District’s financing? I don’t see it,” said a source closely connected to the Virginia effort. “They have a plan. We have statutory law on the books.”

District officials intend to fund a stadium using ballpark-related sales taxes and some form of the gross receipts tax on large businesses used to help build MCI Center. Exact financing details, however, have not been publicly released. D.C. baseball boosters also contend their plan, unlike Virginia, meets MLB’s desire to commit a minimum amount of ownership funds toward a stadium.

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