After nearly six months of difficult negotiations - and two weeks before Opening Day - the Orioles and Major League Baseball were tantalizingly close to an agreement last night that would financially protect the franchise from the competition it faces in its market for the first time in 34 years.
Negotiators spent all day yesterday at baseball's Park Avenue headquarters in New York trying to hammer out a deal.
Bob DuPuy, MLB's chief operating officer and point man in the talks, said last night that he was optimistic a deal was at hand.
"We have been in discussions all day," DuPuy said. "We are adjourning for the night and will pick up in the morning."
DuPuy and Alan Rifkin, an attorney for the Orioles who was in New York for the talks, declined to comment on the specifics of the talks.
Orioles owner Peter Angelos also declined to comment last night on the progress of negotiations.
An agreement would end a saga that began in February 2002, when MLB bought the Montreal Expos from Jeffrey Loria for $120 million in a complicated transaction that ended up with Loria buying the Florida Marlins from John Henry, and Henry buying the Boston Red Sox.
It also would end the threat of litigation by Angelos, who has been ready to go to court to protect his franchise.
Over the past few weeks, sources said, the talks have centered on a resale value guarantee for the Orioles - said to be about $365 million - and around how much the Orioles Television Network would pay to the Washington Nationals for the rights to show their games. Discussions also were held on whether MLB or the Nationals would have any ownership of the network.
Since the early 1980s, the Orioles have had exclusive rights to show major league games in an area that stretches from south-central Pennsylvania through Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and Washington and all the way to Charlotte, N.C.
Angelos has said those rights were an important part of the assets he bought when his group paid a then-record $173 million for the Orioles in 1993.
The Orioles have had the Baltimore-Washington market to themselves since the Washington Senators moved to Texas after the 1971 season.
But, after a search process that lasted two years, MLB announced on Sept. 29 that the Expos would be relocated to Washington, which was offering to build the team a new stadium on the Anacostia waterfront in Southeast D.C.
Experts have said that with such a stadium deal in place in the nation's eighth-largest media market (Baltimore is 23rd), the team could be sold to new owners for at least $350 million.
Angelos bitterly opposed the move of the Expos, saying the addition of a second team to the region would result in two mediocre franchises.
Despite that opposition, Angelos in late September said he might be persuaded to go along if a deal were struck to protect his franchise and the state's investment in Oriole Park.
"If those two goals can be accomplished, and I feel the franchise would be secure and the revenue stream is protected and the asset value is secure, it might be possible to make a deal," Angelos said at the time.
In a full-page ad he bought in The Washington Post on March 13, Angelos repeated his claim to the television territory. He also said his team would welcome the Nationals to the regional sports network that was started by the Orioles in 2001 with the approval of Major League Baseball.
The network would televise both teams throughout the territory, and the Nationals would be paid a "fair and appropriate fee" for the rights to their games. TV experts put that figure at about $25 million a year.