Baseball commissioner Bud Selig said Thursday that Major League Baseball is considering relocation and that Washington is the prime candidate to receive a team, but Orioles vice chairman Joe Foss said yesterday that owner Peter Angelos and club officials still feel a competing team in the region would do serious economic harm to an Orioles franchise that draws heavily from Washington's northern suburbs.
"We had an independent analysis done to determine what impact a team in D.C. would have on the Orioles," Foss said. "That study concluded that it would have a severe negative financial effect. We haven't been provided any reliable evidence contrary to those conclusions."
The Orioles actually have commissioned two economic studies to make the case that a Washington team would have a major impact on the club's revenue potential. The initial study was performed in 1995 by the consulting firm of Deloitte & Touche, and the team hired the same company to update it in 2000.
The team maintains that up to 25 percent of its fans come from Washington and its suburbs. Washington baseball proponents dispute that percentage - claiming that the real number is about 13 percent - but there is no dispute that a competing team could take significant market share.
Of course, Major League Baseball could try to soften the Orioles' resistance by promising compensation, but no such assurance was given to the club before Selig shifted his stance on the Washington market during a news conference after this week's owners meeting in Phoenix. In fact, the issue of relocating a team to Washington apparently was not even discussed.
"It wasn't part of the discussions that went on about the sale of the various franchises," Foss said. "Bud's comments, as I understand them, came in response to reporters' questions after the meeting. None of that was evaluated or discussed. The media kind of took Bud's comments and ran with them."
Selig may have been speaking off the cuff, but he seldom speaks carelessly. Since he could not be reached yesterday to clarify his remarks, they have to be taken at face value.
Angelos has claimed in the past he is confident baseball would not act against the interests of one of the industry's most financially stable organizations, but Orioles officials declined to speculate about the meaning of Selig's remarks.
The Orioles can only hope that the embattled commissioner is promoting the possibility of a team in Washington to mollify angry congressmen who could bring scrutiny to baseball's treasured antitrust exemption.
Though Selig publicly says that Major League Baseball is very protective of existing franchises, there is some question whether a significant number of baseball owners really care whether the Orioles would be economically disadvantaged by a competing team.
Angelos, after all, was the guy who took a high-profile public stance against his fellow owners when they threatened to field replacement players and implement a settlement during the disastrous labor war that wiped out the 1994 World Series.
No one will say so for the record, but some of those owners still hold Angelos responsible for the failure of that hard-line strategy, and - by extension - for the economic environment that forced Selig to announce in November that Major League Baseball would attempt to eliminate two struggling franchises.
The controversial contraction plan quickly ran into a wall of union resistance, congressional opposition and legal action that apparently convinced Selig that relocation might be the better option, though he insisted in November that moving a team to Washington would not solve baseball's long-term revenue problems.
The site where a team would play remains unclear, with proposals ranging from downtown D.C. to near Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia.
The Orioles have long maintained that the Washington area, particularly the northern suburbs, is critical to the team's financial health, but Angelos might be hard-pressed to support a territorial claim to the entire District of Col- umbia/Northern Virginia market.
"As a legal matter, there isn't any league rule anyone can assert about that territory," said a high-ranking National League club official, who did not want to be identified, "especially with regard to a team from the other league."
Baseball has imposed territorial limits to keep teams in the same league from playing too close together, but National and American League franchises share the New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas. Even in the case of teams in the same league, the precedent is muddled. The National League's Milwaukee Brewers - operated by the Selig family - play just 60 miles from the home of the NL's Chicago Cubs, a distance only about 20 miles farther than a drive from Camden Yards to downtown Washington.