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Expos for Sale: Team Becomes Pawn of Selig

By Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 28, 2004; Page A01

Second of three articles

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- As the 2002 baseball season approached, Commissioner of Baseball Allan H. "Bud" Selig held a financial stake in two major league teams.

In the National Football League, National Basketball Association or the National Hockey League, even one would have been prohibited. But Major League Baseball has no conflict-of-interest rules preventing the commissioner from owning teams.

Whether in Montreal or San Juan, the Expos don't play to much of a home crowd. In May, a reporter counted 2,443 fans by hand in Puerto Rico. (Andres Leighton - AP)

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Selig had owned the Milwaukee Brewers since 1970. When he was elected commissioner in 1998, he placed his ownership stake in a blind trust, suspended his $316,926 annual salary and announced his withdrawal from the Brewers' day-to-day operations.

Even then, the perception that Selig was still involved would lead to an ugly internal power struggle with the Brewers' president and chief executive officer, who ultimately resigned over the matter last year.

Selig's relationship with the second team was in many ways thornier. His was one of 29 teams that bought the Montreal Expos for $120 million in February 2002 after legal challenges stopped baseball from shutting down the Expos and another franchise. Selig, as commissioner, had personally appointed Montreal's president, general manager and manager shortly after contraction collapsed.

Now, with the club in limbo, he had to figure out what to do with it.

To chart the Expos' odyssey -- from contraction to Puerto Rico, where baseball is renting out the team for 22 "home" games to raise cash -- is to see clearly how Major League Baseball uses its exemption from antitrust laws to control markets and how Selig's dual roles as commissioner and owner create inevitable conflicts.

Selig adopted essentially the same strategy for the Expos that he used to persuade taxpayers in Wisconsin to bail out his financially crippled team.

Baseball would offer the Expos to vacant markets such as Washington, Northern Virginia, Las Vegas and Portland, Ore., but at the same steep price he had set to keep Major League Baseball in Milwaukee: a state-of-the-art ballpark that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

With the public paying for the new stadium, private investors would have more money available to pay Major League Baseball for the team. In other words, taxpayers in the bidding cities would be helping the owners, including Selig, recover their Expos investment, which was approaching $175 million.

As he had in Milwaukee, Selig argued that a publicly financed ballpark was the only way to make the Expos competitive. "Is the community's life better [with a new ballpark]? Yes," Selig said. "Can a ballclub build a stadium and survive? No."

Selig's predecessor as commissioner, Fay T. Vincent, was not convinced. "It's hard for me to argue that local governments should be put in position to finance these facilities to help owners who themselves are enormously wealthy," he said. "That's a fairly tough way to run a business. I mean, c'mon."

Selig's strategy depended heavily on baseball's antitrust exemption. Without it, the Expos or another team probably would have simply moved to the District or Northern Virginia. As recently as 1999, for example, Selig had quietly impeded the Expos' then-managing partner, Claude R. Brochu, in his efforts to move to the Washington area, which, excluding Baltimore, is the nation's sixth-largest market.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1922 that baseball was not interstate commerce as defined by the Sherman Antitrust Act, a ruling the Court later called "an aberration." The 1998 Curt Flood Act granted antitrust protection to major league players but codified baseball's immunity on issues related to the "expansion, location or relocation" of franchises.

Without the exemption, Brochu or any other team owner could have moved into the capital region without Selig's permission and despite the objections of Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos.

With it, Washington would become a strategic pawn in what former Expos president David P. Samson described as "one of the most insane transactions in sports history."

Samson's stepfather, international art dealer Jeffrey H. Loria, stood up at an owners meeting in January 2001 and threatened to resist if baseball tried to fold the franchise, which Loria had purchased in December 1999. Major League Baseball eventually accommodated Loria by paying him 10 times his original investment, then subsidizing his purchase of the Florida Marlins.

The Marlins' owner, billionaire commodities trader John W. Henry, bought the Boston Red Sox in what Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly called a "bag job" by Selig and Major League Baseball despite the existence of higher bids. Henry and Selig denied the charge, but, to avoid litigation, charities benefiting from the sale received an additional $30 million.

In 2003, Major League Baseball, operating a team over an extended period for the first time, decided to park the Expos in Puerto Rico for a quarter of the team's home games. The venture brought in about $350,000 per team and promoted the "internationalization" of the sport.

The Expos would play 103 road games -- 27 percent more than their competitors. The team traveled 40,951 miles last season. The on-field temperature at 18,000-seat Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan sometimes reached 150 degrees. Announced attendance at a May 20 day game between the Expos and Brewers this year was 8,941; a reporter counted 2,443 fans by hand. When Milwaukee's Scott Podsednik homered in the top of the ninth, the ball clanged loudly against the metal bleachers, then rolled away.

There wasn't a soul to chase it down.

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