NEW YORK - Major League Baseball president and chief operating officer Robert DuPuy said yesterday that the arrival of baseball in Washington or Northern Virginia is "inevitable," but refused to give a timetable for the placement of a second major-league team in the region.
DuPuy, baseball's second-ranking official, echoed commissioner Bud Selig's earlier assertion that Washington is "a prime candidate" for the relocation of an existing franchise to the nation's capital or its Virginia suburbs.
"I think it's inevitable there will be a team in D.C. or Northern Virginia," Dupuy said yesterday. "I just think it's a matter of when, and whether it's next year, whether it's five years from now, I think it's inevitable that we will have a team in D.C."
Though Selig's comments before spring training caused great excitement in the Washington area, the lack of a firm timetable and the prospect of another bitter labor war between the players and owners has tempered expectations that the Montreal Expos will arrive in time for the 2003 season.
During a meeting yesterday with reporters from Baltimore and Washington, DuPuy both praised the Washington market and expressed some doubts about the economic fertility of the area and the wisdom of relocating a team within close driving distance of the Orioles.
"Washington's a complicated issue, as we know," he said. "I think no one disputes that there would be some impact on the operation of the Baltimore Orioles. There are a lot of people who drive more than 32 miles, or 41 miles, to see major-league baseball games. So there is some impact, and the question is how much?
"And the question is, would you turn what has been clearly one of our flagship franchises over the last 10 years, notwithstanding that they frankly haven't performed very well on the field for the past few years, into two OK franchises."
Of course, that's the argument that has been employed by Orioles owner Peter Angelos to support his opposition to a Washington franchise. The Orioles have estimated that close to 25 percent of their revenues come from Washington and its suburbs - though primarily the Maryland suburbs.
Washington groups have released studies disputing that level of support, but with Major League Baseball claiming to be in the throes of an economic crisis, even a 10-15 percent revenue hit could have a significant impact on the financial strength of the Orioles.
Angelos could not be reached for comment last night.
There also is some question whether a Washington team would do as well as baseball fans and the two potential ownership groups contend.
"Washington had baseball twice, [but] it's a different city now. Northern Viginia is different than it has been, no question about that," DuPuy said. "It [Washington] has a brand-new, terrific facility for hockey and basketball and not withstanding the presence of M.J. [Michael Jordan] they don't draw what people would like. So there's some issue about the support level there.
"Bud has made it clear, however, that relocation is on baseball's horizon after we sort out the sort of global economic issues that we've got to get solved the next year, two years."
Angelos has made his opposition to a Washington franchise clear, but his relationship with Selig and his fellow owners apparently has never been better. Where he once was considered a maverick too sympathetic to the Major League Baseball Players Association, he recently became a full-fledged member of management's bargaining committee. DuPuy says there is no connection between that appointment and the status of Washington's bid to land a team.
The owners, according to DuPuy, brought in Angelos because of his tenure as an owner, his large stake in his franchise and because he was the owner thought to be most sympathetic to the union during the 1994-1995 work stoppage.
"It's impressive having an owner there, frankly," DuPuy said. "The players association generally has players there, and I think it adds an element. Yesterday, we talked about the sincerity of both sides getting to a deal sooner rather than later because some writers have written that there's really no incentive to make a deal until the fall, and nothing's going to happen until the fall.
"We would not waste owners' time [if that were the case]. ... We would have just stayed with staff if we were going to mark time. He provides a level of dignity to the proceedings, having an owner at the table."
DuPuy also provided an update on the negotiations, which remain largely stalled over two major issues - a dramatic increase in the amount of local revenue shared by all the clubs and the owners' desire for a 50 percent luxury tax on payrolls in excess of $98 million per team.
"We did $160 million of sharing of local revenue last year," he said. "We wanted to bump to $250 million. They're willing to go to $180 [million], that's the spread. To dump $20 million in an industry that generates $3.5 billion in revenues isn't going to cure a lot of ills."