Washington area may get another swing at baseball

`Prime candidate' for relocated team, commissioner says

Abrupt switch by Selig

January 18, 2002|By Peter Schmuck and Jon Morgan | Peter Schmuck and Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig indicated yesterday that Washington may finally be close to getting a major-league team, calling the area "the prime candidate" for the relocation of the Montreal Expos or another struggling franchise.

Selig raised the hopes of long-abandoned Washington baseball fans when he abruptly changed his public stance on a possible franchise shift and endorsed the Washington-Northern Virginia market as the most viable destination for a relocated team, perhaps as early as 2003.

"Given the demographics of the area and the number of people who want it, I would say it's the prime candidate," Selig said as baseball owners wrapped up a two-day meeting in Phoenix.

Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos has long resisted the suggestion that two major-league franchises can thrive in the Baltimore-Washington region, but there has been speculation that he might get a larger share than other owners of proceeds from the resale of a franchise to offset the move's financial impact on the Orioles.

Angelos, who attended the meeting in Phoenix, was traveling yesterday and not available for comment.

The Expos, who have been rumored for years to be headed for Washington, appear to be the prime candidate to move now that baseball's plan to eliminate two teams appears to have disintegrated.

Baseball abandoned Washington for the second time after the 1971 season, when the Senators moved to Arlington, Texas, and became the Texas Rangers.

The most likely situation has Major League Baseball buying out the Expos for $120 million and reselling the franchise to one of the two potential ownership groups that are vying to put a team in the district or Northern Virginia.

Selig's comments were eagerly received by leaders of the movement to return baseball to the Washington area.

"He gives us a little more light at the end of the tunnel," said Fred Malek, who heads the group that wants to put the team downtown. "We weren't expecting it. But it's clearly the most positive statement we've had from the commissioner on a public or private basis."

William Collins, who heads a rival group trying to bring baseball to Northern Virginia, said: "We've always believed ... Major League Baseball has always recognized the significance of this national capital area and the Northern Virginia marketplace."

In October, a consultant working for Major League Baseball visited the Washington area as well as a number of other potential relocation markets, including northern New Jersey; Portland, Ore.; Charlotte, N.C.; and Norfolk, Va.

Brian Hannigan, communications director for the Virginia Stadium Authority, said the commissioner has said in the past that relocation was a possibility and that the Washington area would be a candidate. "But this was the most direct, and we're very encouraged," he said.

Hannigan said Selig may be more willing to discuss a team in Washington because he has become convinced - through data provided by Washington baseball boosters and others - that the Orioles would not be hurt by a competing club in the combined market.

The Orioles disagree and have produced studies saying up to 25 percent of their fan base comes from the Washington area. Hannigan's group released its own study last year suggesting the number would be 13 percent.

"We've felt all along that another team, especially a National League team, could succeed in Northern Virginia and D.C. without hurting the Orioles. The rivalry would be good for both teams," Hannigan said.

Orioles officials were not available for comment, but one consultant who specializes in the finances of sports said he doubts the Orioles would be unscathed.

"No one should have false illusions. A team in Washington will certainly adversely affect the Orioles significantly," said Marc Ganis, a consultant with Sportscorp Ltd. of Chicago. "It would be a bonehead move for Major League Baseball."

Selig's comments come two months after he told a congressional committee that moving a team to Washington would not solve the economic problems that led Major League Baseball to report a combined loss of $519 million for the 2001 season, but a lot has happened since then.

Baseball's plan to eliminate the Expos and Minnesota Twins has all but collapsed in the aftermath of public outrage, congressional scrutiny, union opposition and a legal ruling that virtually guaranteed the Twins could not be disbanded until after the 2002 season.

The likelihood of contraction was dealt a further blow recently when it was revealed that Selig - while playing a dual role as interim commissioner and Milwaukee Brewers owner - accepted a $3 million loan in 1995 from a company affiliated with Twins owner Carl Pohlad, in obvious violation of baseball's internal rules.

Though the 90-day loan was a relatively insignificant transaction that didn't raise any eyebrows at the time, it created the appearance of a conflict of interest in light of baseball's apparent plan to pay Pohlad a premium price for his struggling franchise.

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