Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Major League Baseball’s relocation committee met yesterday for 2-1/2 hours in Georgetown with Northern Virginia officials seeking the Montreal Expos, leaving the commonwealth lobby confident about its position in the ongoing race for the club.

They didn’t declare themselves in the lead against the District’s rival bid, but executives with the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority were bullish following their second extensive conference with the relocation panel in three weeks.

“I think we’re very close,” said Gabe Paul Jr., stadium authority executive director. “I can see the finish line. I feel very optimistic about Northern Virginia’s chances.”

Yesterday’s meeting, as with an Aug.25 session, was designed to continue negotiations over the development and lease of a proposed ballpark in Loudoun County. Such high-level talks have been occurring for several weeks, but industry sources said Northern Virginia’s negotiations remain at a different stage than those in the District.

City officials are deep enough in their parallel, competing stadium talks with MLB executives that they have haggled over the word “may” as opposed to “will” in a proposed term sheet. Such a fine level of detail has not occurred in the Virginia talks, the sources said.

Northern Virginia also grappled with other pressing problems concerning its bid, including snags in its land acquisition for development surrounding the Loudoun County stadium and the fact the stadium authority has begun to run out of operating funds.

“We believe we can answer any questions they may still have,” Paul said.

Relocation committee members, led yesterday by Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, conferred for several hours after the Northern Virginia lobby left and were not available for comment.

What remains undetermined, of course, is which bid will be chosen between the District and Northern Virginia, and when. Baseball repeatedly has missed self-imposed deadlines in its three-year ownership of the Expos, including at least three soft targets so far this season. The best guess on a timeline for MLB’s decision is at the end of this month.

But Paul said MLB truly understands the urgent situation it created and the amount of work awaiting the Expos in their new home, whatever it may be. Among the tasks ahead are MLB’s auction to find the Expos’ new owner, staffing team operations in the new city and marketing the club to a new fan base.

“They know they have to make a decision, that there are all sorts of time problems developing,” Paul said.

Yesterday’s talks did not cover another potential hurdle for Northern Virginia: the use of RFK Stadium. District officials, who are scheduled to have their own meeting with the relocation committee today, promised difficult negotiations over the short-term use of the 43-year-old facility if Northern Virginia is chosen over the District.

Joining Paul yesterday were stadium authority members Keith Frederick, Jerry McAndrews, and Brian Hannigan; Loudoun County councilman Bruce Tulloch and two attorneys for Piper Rudnick, the Chicago law firm hired by the authority to assist in the lease talks.

Meanwhile, Expos president Tony Tavares denied recent press reports that the team was actively negotiating a lease to use Montreal’s Olympic Stadium for the 2005 season. What happened, he said, is MLB requested potential dates to fill out a preliminary 2005 schedule. And without knowing where the team will be next year, Tavares submitted dates relative to Montreal and Olympic Stadium.

The early 2005 slate now lists the Expos in Montreal, but the new city will need to inherit that schedule. Tavares said he “guessed there may be a chance” the team stays in Quebec next year, but he continues to operate on the assumption the team will be moved.

“We’re completely in the dark as to what’s going to happen,” Tavares said. “They needed dates, and I went with what I knew. But are we prepared to deal with last-minute changes? It’s what we’ve been doing for the last three seasons.”

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