Thursday, December 16, 2004

Despite Major League Baseball’s decision to shut down business and marketing operations indefinitely, the Washington Nationals and their fans are assuming the club will be back in full operation within two weeks.

“I would bet money on it,” a high-ranking club official said yesterday. “I wouldn’t bet my life savings. But if I was forced to choose and bet some of my own money, I would bet that it’s going to get resolved and we’re going to be back up and running on Dec.31 or Jan.1 at the latest.”

Fans appear to have the same optimistic outlook. Given an opportunity by the club to request refunds, less than 1 percent of the 16,000 season-ticket holders have chosen to do so.

Kevin Uhlich, team president Tony Tavares’ top assistant, said only 152 refund requests had been processed as of late yesterday afternoon, an encouraging sign of the public’s belief that baseball will be played in Washington in 2005.

“Refunds have been real light,” Uhlich said. “You would figure that the people who put down full money to be season-ticket holders would be strong baseball supporters. So it doesn’t surprise me that’s all that’s been refunded so far.”

The Nationals, at the behest of MLB, announced Wednesday evening that fans would be allowed to request refunds on their $300-a-ticket deposits after baseball rejected the D.C. Council’s amended ballpark proposal.

MLB president Bob DuPuy also instructed the club to cease all business and marketing operations while baseball and the city attempt to resolve the stadium issue by the end of the month.

Baseball has said it could begin negotiating with other cities interested in the relocated Montreal Expos after Dec.31, when the sport’s agreement with Washington expires.

Though they were technically closed for business yesterday, Uhlich said nearly all of the club’s employees came to work. Unable to attend to any new business, most simply used the day to catch up on paperwork and other procedural activities that had been pushed aside.

Nationals officials had to postpone a host of meetings set to take place over the next week or two, including key ones with potential broadcast and sponsorship partners. Most of those meetings were rescheduled for early January, further evidence that the club believes it will be operating again soon.

There were, however, tangible signs of the Nationals’ suspended state. The recently opened team store at RFK Stadium closed its doors indefinitely, and ticket agents weren’t allowed to sell any new packages, only field inquiries from confused customers.

Ultimately, though, club employees treated it much like any other workday.

“Actually, it wasn’t that difficult,” Uhlich said. “We just froze everything. It wasn’t monumental. … It’s only been 24 hours, so we’re still trying to find our niche in what we’re going to be able to do. I do know that we’re just not moving forward with anything on the business side.”

On the baseball side, the Nationals are still up and running, though few roster moves are expected during this wait-and-see period.

Interim general manager Jim Bowden continues to work out of his office at the team’s spring training headquarters in Viera, Fla. Bowden still seeks help on his pitching staff but is unlikely to acquire any more players until the franchise’s future is certain.

Back in Washington, workers continue to prepare RFK Stadium to undergo renovations for the upcoming season. Those renovations, expected to cost at least $13million, are vital if baseball is going to be played in the District in less than four months.

The Nationals were already under the gun to be ready in time for Opening Day. In addition to the stadium renovations, the club still needs to sign television and radio rights deals, hire broadcasters, finalize corporate sponsorships and begin to sell partial-season and individual-game tickets.

A club source, however, said all those objectives still could be met on time, provided MLB and the city come to a ballpark agreement by the Dec.31 deadline.

Said the source: “Everything we need to and felt we could accomplish by the home opener April14, we’ll still be able to accomplish it with no problems if we start back up on Jan.1.”

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