- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Finally, the wait is over.

Washington will regain baseball today after a 33-year absence when Major League Baseball (MLB) is scheduled to announce that the District is the new home of the Montreal Expos, according to several baseball and city sources.

A celebratory press conference, after several schedule changes over the past five days, is hurriedly being planned for 4 p.m. at the City Museum, the sources said. The affair will feature several former Washington Senators players, including Jim Hannan and Chuck Hinton, and will be hosted by local public-relations maven and former Senators public-address announcer Charlie Brotman.

“This seems like it’s real this time,” said Hannan, president of MLB’s Players Alumni Association. “It’s been 33 long years. I’ve been waiting a long time for this.”

MLB President Bob DuPuy said that it remains baseball’s intention to name the Expos’ new home this week and that the District has been the focus of relocation efforts for the past month. But he would not be more specific.

The selection of the District arrives after baseball conducted a formal, two-year courtship of seven candidate areas for the Expos, stretching from greater Washington to Portland, Ore.

The District quickly assumed front-runner status for the Expos because of its clear advantages in population and per capita income, as well as baseball’s successful track record with urban ballparks. But it was not until nearly six months ago, when D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams agreed to finance the entire construction of a ballpark using public bonds, that a deal began to grow close.

That revised stance from Mr. Williams manifested itself in a $440million plan that now calls for a stadium to be built in Southeast near the Anacostia River waterfront. The stadium bonds will be paid using a combination of ballpark-related sales taxes, rent payments from the Expos team owner and a gross-receipts tax levied upon large D.C. businesses.

The structure of the stadium deal is widely seen as a major victory for MLB, particularly because of the growing skepticism many cities have toward public financing for sports facilities. But MLB executives successfully used their leverage as the current owners of the Expos, as well as tapping into the significant longing greater Washington has for baseball.

“It’s mystified me for a long time how baseball could ignore Washington,” Hannan said. “It didn’t make any sense, not with the demographics we have here, the size of the TV market and so forth — and don’t forget, you have fans of other teams here from all over the country.”

D.C. officials aim to introduce the ballpark legislation to the D.C. Council by the end of the week. The urgent timetable is needed in order to have enough time to ensure passage by the end of the year, as well as leaving enough time to renovate RFK Stadium for baseball. The Expos will play for three seasons at RFK while waiting for the new ballpark.

Several council members said there are enough votes to pass the stadium financing as the legislative body currently stands. But three opponents of public-stadium financing are expected to take office in January.

Meanwhile, Mr. DuPuy met yesterday for another six hours with Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos seeking to ease his long-held objections to a Washington-area team. Mr. Angelos, long a primary obstacle to baseball in greater Washington, is now assuming a more conciliatory position, according to comments first published in the Baltimore Sun. The outspoken owner now is amenable to a deal that would provide him guarantees preserving his asset value and annual revenue streams, as well as maintaining the value of Camden Yards to the state of Maryland.

Also under significant discussion is the creation of a regional sports TV network that would air games of the Washington team and keep the Orioles distributed throughout the Mid-Atlantic area. The Orioles also would likely gain a significant equity stake in the new network.

Mr. Angelos was unavailable for comment, but upon leaving the meeting last night, Mr. DuPuy said the pair talked about concepts regarding “the protection of the community. It was a civil and constructive discussion. I intend to take those ideas back to the commissioner.”

As a result, today’s announcement almost certainly will arrive without a final agreement with Mr. Angelos in place. A lawsuit from the prominent lawyer remains a possibility.

The impending agreement to relocate the Expos to the District still comes with several conditions. The D.C. Council must approve the stadium-financing package, and MLB owners must approve the move.

The Expos move will prompt a sale of the franchise, ideally by the end of the year. The team is certain to fetch at least $300million and attract bidders from across the country. Already interested are groups led by D.C. financier Fred Malek, Long Island developer Mark Broxmeyer and Tennessee investment banker Brian Saulsberry.

“If this does happen, I think we will have helped do a great service to the city. So in that regard, it would definitely be mission accomplished,” said Mr. Malek, whose creation of the Washington Baseball Club in 1999 was instrumental in making the District a player in the pursuit of baseball after the city’s marked financial and image problems of the early and mid-1990s.

“There would then be another mission in front of us, getting the team, and we will be very aggressive in that regard,” Mr. Malek said. “But the first goal is to get the team to the District.”

On the other side of the Potomac River, Virginia Gov. Mark Warner all but conceded the Expos to the District yesterday on WTOP-AM. The Northern Virginia bid pushed the District hard for months in the Expos chase, but was continually beset by problems with its proposed ballpark location in Loudoun County and political opposition to a proposal to back stadium bonds with the moral obligation of the commonwealth.

“Clearly, D.C. is in the lead and perhaps beyond in the lead,” Mr. Warner said yesterday. “The city put some things on the table, taking away more of the risk to baseball, that we in Virginia just weren’t willing to go forward on.”

Dick Heller contributed to this report.

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