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Expos for Sale: Team Becomes Pawn of Selig

Ventura accused baseball of seeking to extort a new ballpark from his state by threatening to shut down the Twins.

"Major League Baseball is really no different than OPEC; it controls supply and it controls price with absolutely no accountability," said Ventura.

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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Baseball struggled to find a way to placate Loria and shut down two teams. The process began to resemble real-life Monopoly, with baseball's powerbrokers bartering teams behind closed doors, unbeknownst to their millions of fans.

Under one scenario, Athletics owner Steve Schott would relocate his entire franchise -- including the players and front-office staff -- to Anaheim. Oakland would effectively dissolve and take over the Angels' territory in Orange County.

Under another, Loria was to move the Expos to Tampa Bay, where the Devil Rays would be folded. Under still another, Marlins owner Henry would fold his team and buy the Angels from the Walt Disney Co.

Henry emerged as the fulcrum around which baseball would bring order. The commodities trader was widely respected as a brilliant, honest broker who loved baseball and wanted to stay in the game -- just not in Miami.

As with most teams in line for contraction, the need for a new ballpark was the central issue in south Florida. Henry, who bought the club in 1998, had tried unsuccessfully for three years to get public financing. On April 25, 2001, Selig wrote a letter to the Florida legislature warning that the eight-year-old Marlins would be moved or eliminated if no stadium was secured. "Bluntly, the Marlins cannot and will not survive in south Florida without a new stadium," Selig wrote.

State Sen. Kendrick Meek, a Miami democrat, told the Miami Herald, "It sounds like Johnny Soprano writing that letter, trying to threaten and put pressure on us."

That summer Henry informed Selig he planned to sell. Selig asked him to stay in baseball. After his Angels bid fell apart, Henry contacted former Orioles president Larry Lucchino, who was now involved in a bid to purchase the Boston Red Sox.

"We're dialing for dollars," Lucchino told him. Henry asked if he could join forces.

For Major League Baseball, the timing could hardly have been more fortuitous. Henry, Lucchino and a third partner, television executive Thomas C. Werner, all were close with Selig and had impeccable reputations; in a sense, the group had been pre-approved. Henry denied the deal was a "bag job," as the Massachusetts attorney general alleged.

As baseball shuffled its deck of clubs, Loria found himself holding a flush. Spring training was weeks away. Henry's purchase of the Red Sox was predicated on selling the Marlins. After weeks of negotiation, baseball paid Loria $120 million -- a 900 percent return on his original Expos investment -- plus a $38.5 million loan tied to several conditions, including Loria's ability to get a stadium in south Florida.

On their way out of Montreal, Loria and Samson stripped the franchise. With them went computers containing scouting reports on every Expos player, dozens of signed home run balls, even life-size cutouts of the team's former superstar right fielder, Vladimir Guerrero. The Expos' limited partners, meantime, became unwitting owners of 6 percent of the Marlins. In July 2002, they filed a racketeering suit in U.S. District Court in Miami. It charged Loria, Samson, Selig, DuPuy and the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball of illegally conspiring in what the suit called an "Expos Elimination Enterprise."

The ongoing suit could complicate baseball's plans for the Expos. The limited partners have 90 days to seek an injunction if baseball tries to move the team.

Last October, Loria's Marlins miraculously found themselves in the World Series against the New York Yankees. "Can you imagine?" anguished one of the limited partners. "I'm sitting here. I'm an owner of the Florida Marlins. I'm rooting for the Yankees!"

And then, of course, the Marlins won.

This spring, nearly all the limited partners received World Series rings, even as they continued to sue Loria and Major League Baseball for racketeering in U.S. District Court.

A 'Prime' Indication

The day after the Red Sox deal was announced in Phoenix, Selig came to a news conference beaming. The previous weeks had been filled with criticism about contraction, questions about conflicts of interest and editorials calling for Selig's resignation.

But, behind closed doors at the Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa, the owners who had elected Selig commissioner and paid his salary stood behind him. "These were the best two days I've had in a long time. Make of that what you will," he told reporters.

And then, in the middle of the news conference, Selig was asked where Washington fit in to baseball's baffling jigsaw puzzle. Would the nation's capital finally get a team?

Perhaps Selig's mood got the better of him. "I'd have to say that given the demographics of the area and all the people who want it, they are the prime candidate," he said.

Relocation, Selig said on Jan. 17, 2002, was coming "in the near future."

Staff researchers Julie Tate and Margot Williams contributed to this report.

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