Aiming for franchise, D.C. still sees Expos as best moving target

But O's factor, MLB's allegiance to Montreal are big stumbling blocks

July 16, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The Montreal Expos showed up at Camden Yards last night to begin a three-game interleague series that may someday be of great regional interest to baseball fans in the Baltimore/Washington area.

Speculation remains strong that the Expos will soon abandon their efforts to build a new stadium in Montreal and sell out to an ownership group in Washington, D.C., or the capital's northern Virginia suburbs, which means that they could be playing within driving distance of Oriole Park sometime in the next couple of years.

Of course, you've heard all this before. The effort to bring baseball back to the nation's capital has been going on for much of the past decade, led by prospective owner William Collins and Virginia Baseball, Inc.

Collins came reasonably close to getting an expansion team a few years ago. His name comes up every time there is talk of a franchise shift. He is poised to begin work on a new stadium in northern Virginia as soon as he succeeds in gaining control of a major-league club. The Expos may be his best chance yet.

Of course, you've heard the other side, too. Orioles owner Peter Angelos is dead set against a franchise moving into his backyard, because the team draws a significant number of fans from the D.C. area.

The Orioles need this like they need another Albert Belle, but -- like Belle and his attempt to devise a new form of sign language -- the issue just won't go away.

Collins and Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore traveled to the All-Star Game in Boston this week to continue a long-running lobbying campaign to convince owners that northern Virginia is the best unoccupied market for baseball. They may be right -- it certainly is the largest -- but they also have to make a compelling case that the presence of another major-league team in the region will not do serious economic harm to the Orioles.

"The studies that we've done indicate that less than 5 percent of frequent [multi-game] visitors to Camden Yards come from northern Virginia," said Mike Scanlan, vice president of the Collins group.

The Orioles estimate that a far higher number of fans come from the Washington area, though those figures include the Maryland and northern Virginia suburbs.

Virginia Baseball Inc. is one of two potential ownership groups trying to bring a team to Washington. The other, led by well-connected former Texas Rangers limited partner Fred Malek, is seeking a team to play downtown, which would figure to have a greater economic impact on the Orioles.

Angelos has repeatedly asserted his objection to the placement of a second franchise in the region, and why not? The Orioles are one of the most financially sound organizations in baseball at a time when the economic viability of several other franchises -- including the Expos -- is in question. The Orioles owner does not see the logic in putting the economic well-being of a successful franchise at risk, and it appears that baseball commissioner Bud Selig agrees with him.

"I'm always protective of existing franchises," Selig said recently. "I remember 30 years ago when the Kansas City A's moved to Oakland and what that did to the San Francisco franchise. Baltimore is one of our bellwether franchises, so obviously I'm concerned about the effect that might have."

It is a particularly sensitive subject in Baltimore at the moment, because the Orioles are in the midst of a disappointing season that has tested the patience of their faithful fans. But club officials seem surprisingly confident that Major League Baseball will not place another team in the region, though Selig insists that he has given the Orioles no guarantee.

Selig prefers to focus on the situation in Montreal, where the Expos still are trying to come up with a formula to finance a new stadium and keep the team in place. But dwindling attendance and internal management intrigue have intensified speculation about a potential franchise shift.

"We're trying hard in Montreal," Selig said. "We're giving all the parties ample time to do the things they need to do to make that an economically viable franchise. And somebody was critical the other day and said, `How much more time is the commissioner going to give?' Well, you want to be fair. You want to bend over backward to be fair.

"One can make their own assessments about Montreal, but it is a major-league city and has been since 1969. We want to give them at least a fair amount of time to work their problems out."

The club's fractious ownership situation remains unsettled. General partner Claude Brochu owns 7 percent of the club and controls another 7 percent but can't make a deal to sell the team without 75 percent ownership approval. The remaining partners are working on a plan to reconfigure ownership and bring in new money to help keep the team in Montreal.

The club does not have tremendous leverage to exact stadium concessions from the government because of the perception in Montreal that there really is no place for the Expos to move -- at least not right away.

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