Thursday, September 30, 2004

Major League Baseball announced yesterday that the Montreal Expos will move to the District, in one day turning 33 years of frustration and heartache for the Washington area into unbridled joy.

“This was a long, arduous and very, very difficult process,” said Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, who called city officials shortly after 4 p.m. to inform them of the decision. “But this was a very impressive bid. It showed real commitment, [the city’s] dedication to getting something done. They were tenacious. And so I would say from a Washington standpoint, this was their finest hour.”

D.C. officials, former Washington Senators players and hundreds of fans jammed into City Museum in Northwest for a celebratory press conference, an event dreamt about for years but thought by many to be a hope never to be realized.

“I’m beyond thrilled,” said D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who, along with many other city officials, sported a red Senators cap. “The American game is rounding third and at last heading back home to the nation’s capital.”

The announcement by Major League Baseball (MLB) came 80 years to the day after the original Washington Senators won the American League pennant and one day shy of the 33rd anniversary of the final game played in Washington by the expansion Senators franchise.

The Washington area came close to getting a team several times since that game, most notably in 1974 when the San Diego Padres came close to moving to the District. In 1995, Virginia telecommunications executive William Collins held a tentative deal to buy the Houston Astros and move them to Northern Virginia, but the agreement fell through.

It was not until six months ago, when Mr. Williams finally agreed to meet MLB’s demand to build a ballpark for the Expos financed completely with public bonds, that baseball in Washington moved significantly closer to becoming a reality.

The Washington club will begin play at RFK Stadium in April and stay there for at least three seasons. Legislative work on a $440 million public-financing package for a new ballpark planned in Southeast near the Anacostia waterfront will begin immediately.

A new name for the Expos has not been decided, but Mr. Selig said that likely will be determined by opening day. The leading candidates include Nationals, Grays and Senators. The latter name still is the property of the Texas Rangers, the club that the Senators franchise became after it left the District in 1971.

Legislation on the stadium financing will be introduced to the D.C. Council tomorrow. The stadium would be financed by a combination of ballpark-related sales taxes, rent payments from the team’s owners and a gross-receipts tax on large D.C. businesses.

“We moved very aggressively on this, but we had to be prepared to walk away at any time, and we were,” said Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat and chairman of the D.C. Council’s finance committee. Mr. Evans had demanded that MLB commit to move the club to Washington before proceeding with formal stadium legislation.

To that end, the relocation of the Expos remains contingent upon council approval of the stadium financing, as well as the formal approval of MLB owners. That vote will occur at a meeting of the owners in Chicago in mid-November.

Meanwhile, MLB continues to develop a compensation deal with Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos. For years, Mr. Angelos has strongly opposed placing a team in the Washington area, arguing that a second club in the region would harm his franchise economically.

Mr. Angelos and MLB moved close to an agreement after extensive negotiations in the past week. The deal would give Mr. Angelos financial guarantees to protect his annual revenues and asset value. If those measures fell below specified benchmarks, MLB likely would make up the shortfall.

Mr. Angelos also would gain at least partial equity in a new regional sports television network that would carry Expos games in the Washington area and Orioles games throughout the mid-Atlantic region.

“There is equity on all sides,” Mr. Selig said. “Peter has been treated fairly.”

The length of the agreement still is at issue. Mr. Angelos wants the deal to be permanent; MLB wants it to last only as long as Mr. Angelos owns the club.

“We have made substantial progress but have not yet reached an agreement,” Mr. Angelos said. “Our aim has been to protect and preserve the Orioles franchise and the economic benefits it has generated for Baltimore for the past 50 years. Equally important have been our efforts to protect Maryland’s investment in Camden Yards.”

Other legal hurdles remain in the Expos move.

A group of limited partners of the Expos are suing Mr. Selig and the team’s former managing partner, Jeffrey Loria. They accused Mr. Selig and Mr. Loria of conspiring to kill the Expos’ economic prospects in Montreal and dilute their equity in the team. Should the partners prevail in an arbitration decision expected next month, they plan to seek an injunction that blocks the team’s move from Montreal.

“It’s a little early to conclude the ballgame is over,” said Jeffrey Kessler, attorney for the limited partners.

Yesterday’s announcement also marks a bitter moment for Northern Virginia’s bid for the Expos. Behind the leadership of Mr. Collins and then the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority, the commonwealth began its pursuit of the Expos years before the District. The group raised the profile of the Washington area with MLB as the District spent much of the mid-1990s in financial disarray.

But Northern Virginia boosters made critical errors that ruined the group’s bid. Plans for a stadium in Pentagon City fell apart in the face of stiff landowner and local government opposition. A revival effort, predicated on a stadium located in Loudoun County, emerged earlier this year. The new and much more remote location, however, displeased many on MLB’s relocation committee. And the commonwealth’s financing plan held too much responsibility for the incoming team owner and too little political support in Richmond for baseball’s liking.

“Our partnership still strongly believes the guaranty for the long-term success of this franchise would be achieved at a location in Northern Virginia,” Mr. Collins said yesterday.

He added that the refusal of Gov. Mark Warner to back stadium financing with the moral obligation of the commonwealth cost Virginia “the most significant economic opportunity in a decade.”

MLB officials now will begin work to sell the franchise by the end of the year and are expected to make an announcement detailing the process soon. The franchise will fetch at least $300 million and a large group of interested bidders from across the country.

The sale will be only one of many tasks to complete before April.

In the next seven months, a $13 million renovation project will begin at RFK Stadium, a new ownership group determined, a new team name and logo selected, and a roster and team staff assembled.

Current Expos President Tony Tavares will play a prominent role in the management of the franchise while the new owners are sought. Mr. Tavares plans to travel to Washington next week to begin work with city officials.

“This is like starting up a new franchise,” Mr. Tavares said. “We have a long list of things to. Twelve pages, single-spaced.”

• Thom Loverro contributed to this report.

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