Friday, July 18, 2003

The Major League Baseball Players Association likely will not approve any kind of 2004 schedule with the Montreal Expos splitting home sites, as they are this season between Quebec and Puerto Rico.

With 16 of 22 scheduled “home” dates in San Juan already in the books for the MLB-owned Expos this season, the extra travel, taxes, and logistics have tested the patience of Expos players.

“It is far from clear to me that the players will agree to play part of the season in Montreal and part of the season in Puerto Rico,” Gene Orza, union associate general counsel, told the Associated Press yesterday. “I just don’t see that flying as smoothly as it did the last time around, if at all.”

The players association must approve a schedule each year, and the process acts as a check against MLB officials to ensure against excessive travel and other similar problems.

Rarely has the schedule been a point of contention between the union and MLB management. The union, however, last fall insisted on additional per diem money, establishment of housing standards, and travel accommodations for players’ families before approving this year’s games in Puerto Rico.

The Expos are far from any kind of normal situation. A relocation committee appointed by MLB Commissioner Bud Selig was to make some type of determination among the District, Northern Virginia and Portland, Ore., as a permanent home for the Expos by the All-Star break. With that timeline missed, MLB officials are now targeting late August to the end of the season to render a decision.

None of the relocation candidates have a full, ratified stadium financing and site package in place, which is sought by the relocation committee. As a result, most baseball insiders expect MLB executives will want to return to San Juan next season. Attendance in San Juan has beaten the turnout in Montreal by 22 percent, averaging 14,216 a game on the island, and the games there came with a $7million guarantee from promoter Antonio Munoz.

Puerto Rican promoters are now seeking to play host to as much as the Expos’ full 2004 home schedule.

“While the players liked playing in Puerto Rico, they certainly didn’t like being the tail of the schedule dog,” Orza told the AP. “As between playing all their [home] games in Puerto Rico, all of their games in Montreal, all of their games in Washington, all of their games in Portland or someplace else, or all of their games in Northern Virginia, those are all preferable to playing 22 games in Puerto Rico under circumstances where the schedule has been completed.”

Rich Levin, MLB senior vice president of communications, declined to comment on the substance of Orza’s remarks.

“All this talk about the Expos at this point is just speculation,” Levin said.

A tentative 2004 schedule has not been sent from MLB offices to the union. Originally due July1, the union granted baseball a one-month extension as it continues to wrestle with the Expos’ future.

Much of the Expos’ unhappiness with the current split schedule stems from a brutal 22-game road trip in late May and early June that sent the team to Florida, Philadelphia, Puerto Rico, Seattle, Oakland and then Pittsburgh, covering more than 11,000 miles. The Expos went 8-14 on the trip and weakened their chances for both the National League East crown and the NL wild card.

Players competing in Puerto Rico are additionally subject to a 20 percent local income tax on money earned there. The taxes can be used as credits against their tax burdens back home. But the steep rate — more than double most non-resident income tax rates in the U.S. — greatly increases the overall tax rate on their income.

“There is certainly a reasonable and positive solution to all of this, for both baseball and the players, and that’s to relocate to Washington,” said Bobby Goldwater, executive director of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission. “Whatever concerns exist in Puerto Rico, I am confident they will not apply to Washington.”

The union had been quite concerned several weeks ago about the District’s nascent attempt to levy an income tax specifically on pro baseball players competing in the city. But plans for that tax are now dormant.

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