Wednesday, September 8, 2004

Some Major League Baseball club owners are pushing the sport’s senior executives to scrap the current relocation process for the Montreal Expos because they want the team to be sold to the highest bidder, industry sources have told The Washington Times.

MLB, adopting a method used by the NBA with the Charlotte Bobcats expansion team, is seeking to pick the Expos’ new home and craft a stadium deal with government officials before selling the team. To that end, baseball’s relocation committee has been in deep negotiations for weeks with both the District and Northern Virginia on a ballpark pact.

But a group of owners, unhappy with three unprofitable years during the relocation quest, want MLB commissioner Bud Selig and president Bob DuPuy to sell the Expos first. The new owners then would be responsible for determining the Expos’ home and finishing negotiations on a stadium.

“The thinking is, ‘Let’s sell the team, get the money and let the new owner figure all this out,’” said one source familiar with the process.

Said another: “It has been more traditional to have a private purchase and let the purchaser go through the relocation process. That would satisfy part of the problem, taking the team out of the ownership of Major League Baseball.”

DuPuy could not be reached for comment yesterday.

The last MLB owner to relocate a team was Robert Short, who moved the Washington Senators to Arlington, Texas, after the 1971 season. The Washington area has been without a major league team since.

If MLB were to sell the team now, it is not clear if the buyer would face restrictions as to where the Expos could relocate. The bidding process also promises to be wide open, with a number of prospective owners stepping forward to join the two known local entities, the Washington Baseball Club and the Virginia Baseball Club.

Despite the growing owner frustration, it is unlikely Selig and DuPuy will act on those sentiments. Both local camps expect the long-awaited Expos decision by the end of the month, possibly within two weeks. Within a matter of days, Jerry Reinsdorf, Chicago White Sox owner and head of MLB’s relocation committee, is expected to forward his recommendation to Selig.

From there, the timing is up to Selig. But several industry sources said Reinsdorf and DuPuy are pushing the commissioner to act as quickly as possible to give the Expos the best possible start in their new home. Locally, RFK Stadium would require four to six months to prepare for baseball.

Several MLB executives and owners also want to see the choice made before the October postseason, an event that traditionally delays or precludes any industry announcements that could detract attention from play on the field.

“I think the committee has done an excellent job,” said Gabe Paul Jr., Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority executive director. “They have been very thorough and I think the process is so far along, I don’t see anything except this reaching its final conclusion through the commissioner.”

Mark Tuohey, chairman of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, also doubted the current process could be halted at this stage.

“It’s getting down to the wire on a recommendation,” he said. “I think the process is coming to a conclusion.”

But the unrest among some owners reflects the extreme difficulty Selig faces as he tries to balance the superlative demographics of the Washington area against the stiff opposition of Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos. The Expos issue may prove to be one of the most contentious among owners in Selig’s 12-year reign as commissioner.

“I’m sure there is a level of frustration among the owners,” said William Collins, chairman of the Virginia Baseball Club. “I had some owners tell me a year ago they wanted this thing done. But the relocation committee has been very diligent in its efforts to get the best deal for baseball from the various communities.”

The beleaguered Expos have been owned by MLB since February 2002, when team owners bought the club from Jeffrey Loria for $120million. Loria is now owner of the Florida Marlins.

Since then, MLB has operated the club and played parts of the last two seasons in San Juan, Puerto Rico. But the team’s fiscal losses have grown well into the tens of millions, as have conflict of interest perceptions as the Expos continue to be owned by their direct competitors.

• Staff writer Eric Fisher contributed to this report.

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