Thursday, December 23, 2004

The baseball circus in the District has subsided, at least until Marion Barry takes his place on the D.C. Council next month.

But if the District show is in intermission, two others just as entertaining and controversial are poised to open: the appeasement talks with Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos and the auction of the Washington Nationals.

Major League Baseball officials would rather deal with Queen Linda than the Orioles owner. The saving grace for baseball in the fight with Council chairman Linda Cropp was that it put off having to talk to Angelos again.

Now the talks to pay off Angelos for allowing the Montreal Expos to relocate to Washington must resume. Major League Baseball president Bob DuPuy probably would rather spend an evening listening to councilman David Catania wax irritatingly about greedy owners than deal with this greedy owner in particular.

Explaining why baseball must pay Angelos anything to move the Expos here is nearly as futile as explaining why the District had to offer such a sweetheart deal to get baseball to come to Washington. It may be ridiculous. It may be unfair. But it is what it is, and it is something that has to be done, for a number of reasons.

The lucrative proposal under consideration for Angelos reportedly consists of a guaranteed resale value for the Orioles in the neighborhood of $360million, a guaranteed level of annual revenue, and most of a regional sports television network.

This deal serves but one purpose: It sends a signal to owners in other locales who feel threatened — the New York Yankees’ George Steinbrenner and the San Francisco Giants’ Peter McGowan, for instance — that there are no plans to move any franchises near theirs.

The payoff to Angelos will be precedent-setting, and it will be far too expensive to repeat again. That realization helped ensure the 29-1 vote by owners in favor of moving the Expos to Washington.

The payoff also would prevent Angelos from suing his fellow owners, a method I advocate as a way to clean up our courts and reduce litigation. Treat the owners like farmers. Just as the government pays farmers not to plant certain crops, lawyers could be paid not to sue.

But I digress. No one can say how Angelos might sue baseball, which, based on its rules, has every right to put a team in the District. The District lies just beyond official Orioles territory, and there doesn’t appear to be any legal basis for Angelos to sue baseball.

That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t, though, and it is not the fear of losing a lawsuit that concerns baseball.

It is the fear of having commissioner Cadillac Bud Selig and others answering questions in depositions. It is the fear of baseball revealing its business practices in the discovery process. (Though it might be worth it to have baseball’s dirty laundry on this whole relocation business out there for everyone to see.)

Once Angelos is appeased, the process of selecting an owner for the Nationals can begin — a process that could be as politically charged as the one to resolve funding for the new ballpark.

More than 20 groups have filed an expression of interest to bid on the club in an auction that could result in a sale price close to $400million for a franchise that was worth about $100million in Montreal.

Only five of the suitors — Washington Baseball Club (Fred Malek), Capital Baseball (Bill Collins), Long Island real estate developer Mark Broxmeyer, Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson and Memphis investment banker Brian Saulsberry — have been identified publicly.

That means there are a lot of unidentified people who want to own the Washington Nationals.

Major League Baseball’s auction process has a messy past. When the Red Sox were sold three years ago, the Massachusetts attorney general threatened to investigate the bidding process. (But given the Red Sox’s victory in the World Series this year, I doubt if you would find many fans unhappy that John Henry, Larry Lucchino and Tom Werner were the owners picked by Cadillac Bud.)

Will there be local owners? Will it go to the highest bidder or one that Cadillac Bud already has handpicked? Will groups merge? When will this process be completed? Major League Baseball could continue to operate this franchise well past Opening Day.

And, of course, the most important question: Who does Queen Linda want to own the team?

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