Angelos sticking with his best pitch: No team for D.C.

Baseball's executive council holds closed-door meeting

D.c. Roots For Home Team

September 24, 2004|By Ed Waldman and Gail Gibson | Ed Waldman and Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

MILWAUKEE -- A two-hour meeting by Major League Baseball's executive council produced no final decision yesterday on whether the struggling Montreal Expos will move next season to Washington, but it made plain the chief obstacle to baseball's leading relocation plan: Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos.

Angelos, one of eight team owners who attended the closed-door meeting in Commissioner Bud Selig's downtown office, made his case for the first time formally that relocating a team so close to Baltimore would threaten the Orioles financially and hurt their ability to compete.

Whether he won over fellow owners was not clear; MLB chief operating officer Bob DuPuy said it would be a matter of "days" before a decision is announced.

"Peter Angelos has made his views known with regard to the effect that he believes a team in the D.C. area will have on the Baltimore Orioles, and he articulated those views," DuPuy told reporters after the meeting. "Mr. Angelos' concerns, which are shared by the commissioner and have been all along, have always been a serious issue here."

Angelos avoided reporters in Milwaukee and did not respond last night to phone calls seeking comment. The likely deadline for a decision is the end of the regular season, which is Oct. 3.

The battle looming after that could be an ugly one. A gruff and street-wise trial lawyer who brought down the asbestos industry and took on Big Tobacco, Angelos made plain a decade ago that he was willing to tangle with fellow baseball owners when he refused to field replacement players during the strike in 1995.

Still, the relocation showdown could be one of his toughest fights yet, with few attractive options.

Baseball could try to compensate the Orioles for the sudden influx of competition with a multimillion-dollar payment, but Angelos has signaled he is not interested in a cash settlement that would not protect the Orioles' long-term financial health.

Angelos could choose what for him is a familiar option -- going to court -- but legal experts say a lawsuit could put him in a hard-to-win spot: arguing to preserve a monopoly.

"Basically, what [Angelos] would be complaining about is that the relocation of the Expos to D.C. would result in economic competition between his club and the Expos," said Matt Mitten, a law professor and director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University. "An antitrust claim, I don't think, would be viable."

Group decision

Baseball's exemption from U.S. antitrust laws, which are intended to prevent conduct that reduces or eliminates economic competition in most industries, allows the team owners to determine as a group where teams are located or relocated without fear of prosecution.

And Mitten said courts across the country have generally held that individual club owners have a fiduciary responsibility to do what is in the best interest of the major leagues overall.

"If you look at it and say, `What's [Angelos'] harm that he's going to suffer?' he's probably correct in that to say that `I'm better off having the D.C.-Baltimore market to myself, and I'm not going to be happy if there's an alternative,'" Mitten said. "On the other hand, at some point, the individual club owner's economic interest has to yield to those of the league and the other clubs as a whole."

In the past month, members of the relocation committee -- including Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who also sits on the executive council -- have been in Washington twice for meetings with the competing groups seeking the Expos in Washington and Northern Virginia.

Officials in Washington, which appears to be the strong front-runner, announced plans to build a stadium for the Expos in Southeast Washington, along the Anacostia waterfront. The stadium would cost an estimated $440 million, and debt service on the bonds would be paid for through a gross-receipts tax on large businesses, a tax on tickets, concessions and merchandise bought at the ballpark, and rent from the team.

Virginia's bid, meanwhile, has stumbled in recent weeks, partly because Gov. Mark Warner will not support a plan to build a ballpark using bonds backed by the "moral obligation" of the state. But Brian Hannigan, a spokesman for the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority, said he believed his group was still in the game.

"Despite all the speculation that the Washington proposal was going to be approved, this [meeting] reinforces the fact of life that the Orioles' opposition is influencing the process," Hannigan said. "We have always said, and we continue to say, that we have an attractive alternative for Major League Baseball."

The Orioles' opposition ultimately could come in a more tailored legal argument -- that the relocation of the Expos had infringed upon specific league agreements that guarantee, for instance, revenue from local television and cable revenues. Orioles games are televised from Pennsylvania to North Carolina.

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