Thursday, August 21, 2003

Monterrey, Mexico, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, the two international bidders for the Montreal Expos, believe they still have a viable chance of playing host to the team next year, and perhaps permanently, despite a series of perceived weaknesses ranging from currency to stadium issues.

As Major League Baseball officials continue to attempt to find the Expos a home for next year, much of the attention in recent weeks has centered on the three domestic candidates, as well as the slow-moving decision-making process itself.

Oregon legislators are wrestling with a $150million state aid package for a Portland ballpark, with full approval possible as early as today. The District is awaiting word from MLB after vocally demanding some kind of conditional award of the Expos before ratifying $338.7million in proposed public sector aid toward a ballpark. And in Northern Virginia, site issues continue to ring loudly as the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority defies a request from the Arlington County Board to remove the jurisdiction from consideration for a ballpark.

But much more quietly, San Juan and Monterrey continue to press ahead on their bids. Mexican billionaire Carlos Bremer and Monterrey Mayor Felipe Cantu met last month with MLB’s relocation committee, continue to talk to members of that panel, and Bremer said he is now expecting a decision on 2004 by Sept.15.

“If they give us a chance, I have no doubt we will be very successful,” Bremer said. “We have put a very aggressive offer out there. We have a stadium ready, and we have given them a great opportunity to open up a very large and important market for baseball.”

Meanwhile, Puerto Rican promoter and real estate executive Antonio Munoz awaits an answer on his standing bid to return to the Expos to San Juan in 2004. The effort seeks to build on the 22 Expos games being played there this season at Hiram Bithorn Stadium.

Both Monterrey and San Juan are seeking at least a full season of Expos home games and received a major boost when the MLB Players Association last month began to insist next year’s home schedule be confined to one city. This season’s split Montreal-San Juan schedule has created a litany of difficult housing, logistics and family issues for nearly every Expos player and front-office employee. MLB commissioner Bud Selig and Expos president Tony Tavares said last week the union’s request was likely to be honored.

The international Expos bids seek to break significant new ground for baseball. Selig has made globalizing the sport a priority in recent years. But never before has MLB even considered playing so many games outside the United States or Canada.

MLB president Bob DuPuy said last week he would like to see some kind of determination on the Expos’ future by Labor Day. But Bremer’s expectation of a decision later in September, and Selig’s recent remarks that the relocation committee still has significant work to do, continues to cloud any potential timetable. MLB officials owe the union a draft of the 2004 schedule by Sept.1, but a fourth extension of that deadline is possible.

Monterrey’s games would be played at Estadio Monterrey, which has a capacity of 26,000 and is expandable to 30,000. Baseball staged successful regular-season series there in 1996 and 1999.

Bremer declined to specify the terms of his offer to MLB, but it is almost certainly a marked elevation from the $7million he paid for 27 percent of the Expos’ home schedule. Much more importantly, Bremer said he has made his guaranteed offer in U.S. dollars instead of the weaker Mexican peso.

That currency issue, however, raises one of several problems with the Monterrey bid. Bremer’s guarantee would protect MLB but offers no long-term plan to shield the Expos from the same kind of currency disparities that helped put the franchise in its current desperate state. The club currently must pay player salaries in U.S. dollars but reaps revenues in weaker Canadian dollars.

A move to Monterrey, even for one season, also would wreak havoc on scheduling because the city is in the Central time zone and nearly 2,000 miles from New York. MLB schedulers have traditionally sent National League clubs to play the Expos and Mets on the same trip.

Even Bremer concedes he is not necessarily the favorite in the race for the Expos.

“I think we have a good shot and would do very well. But it is probably a 35 to 40 percent chance of getting the team,” Bremer said.

Puerto Rico’s experience with the Expos to date, fueling a local economic stimulus worth several million dollars, have local government officials salivating for more games. And MLB officials have a clear comfort level with San Juan, Selig recently calling it “a wonderful experiment.”

But plenty of issues remain that cloud the prospects there of full-season or long-term success. Puerto Rico’s median household income is less than $15,000, clashing mightily with an average ticket price of $33 for Expos games. The stadium itself is tiny, seating less than 20,000, and sports a much-criticized turf field that soaks up heat.

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