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Thomas Boswell

In a Pinch, Reinsdorf Ready to Start Swinging

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, September 23, 2004; Page D01

When baseball has a first-rate brawl, Jerry Reinsdorf is usually in the middle of it. Bud Selig sees to that. If the commissioner is headed into one of the game's periodic gangland rumbles, he wants his toughest Chicago consigliore to cover his back. Bud's the velvet glove. Jerry's the knuckles. "I can tell when George Steinbrenner is lying," Reinsdorf once said. "His lips move."

So today, when Orioles owner Peter Angelos gets to Milwaukee for baseball's Executive Council meeting, he can play nice or he can play rough. But if he wants it rough, he's going to get a full dose of Reinsdorf because the White Sox' owner is the key player on the relocation committee that, after years of study, has finally decided the Expos belong in the District.

O's owner Peter Angelos, opposed to relocating a team to Washington, may hear today from the relocation committee that it favors such a move. (Gregory Bull -- AP)

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When Angelos hears "Washington" he can have a fit, if he wants. But the guy with all the answers, all the research, the owner who searched for over two years to find an Expos site that was not near Baltimore was Reinsdorf.

What Reinsdorf will almost certainly tell the Executive Council -- every one of the eight owners thinking, "Jerry is speaking, but it's Bud talking" -- is that baseball ended up with a bunch of crummy or half-baked relocation options. With one exception. There is a solitary, gold-plated $440 million deal that he, Reinsdorf, negotiated with the nation's capital in order to save the day. Imagine it: No other serious bidders left for leverage yet the District agreed to grab the whole tab!

That's when things will get interesting. What will Angelos do? Scream, threaten, reason, stall or negotiate a payoff?

Several matters are clear. It's almost inconceivable that Selig would let the relocation committee make a report, which amounts to a recommendation, unless he agrees with it.

He also never calls Executive Council meetings until he has the votes to carry the day. Bud spends a week laying the groundwork before he cracks the first egg to make an omelet. There'll be discussion but only in the sense that the Federal Open Market Committee has a debate on interest rates before doing exactly what Alan Greenspan thinks is best. If Selig's history is any guide, Angelos already knows that, on an Executive Council vote, he can probably only count on one vote: his own.

"Peter is on the warpath," said one Orioles source. Getting mad may feel good. But will it do him any good with Reinsdorf in the room as bad cop and Selig, at his highest approval rating ever, playing the role of good cop?

One recent suggestion to placate Angelos is that baseball guarantee a minimum future purchase price for the Orioles. In other words, if Angelos can't sell his team for a certain sum, baseball would make up the difference out the game's general fund. The legal twist here is that Angelos may have a fiduciary responsibility to his minority partners to accept such a deal.

Normally, Selig avoids such confrontation. He works the phones, seeks compromise and waits for problems to disappear or resolve themselves. On key issues, he wants every owner to agree to a unanimous vote. The commissioner will work for years to reach such a consensus. But it doesn't hurt that Selig also has Reinsdorf in his corner, just in case there's some minor unpleasantness, like canceling the World Series. Baseball history says if you're smart, you don't want Reinsdorf on your case.

"Reinsdorf is Selig's right-hand man. He's smart, thorough and absolutely single-minded," said one industry source yesterday. "I've managed to avoid annoying Jerry for seven years. I'm going to try for ten."

Whenever Selig has gone to the mat, or thought he might have to, including the ouster of former commissioner Fay Vincent and the Strike of '94, he's always had Reinsdorf right beside him. If owners have to be herded, then Jerry's your man.

Angelos has spent the last two years deluding himself that Selig and Reinsdorf were assiduously protecting his interests. Instead, Bud and Jerry have been doing what they always do: shopping for the best deal for baseball. Which is what they should be doing. If matters also had worked out well for Angelos, then they'd have said, "See how we took care of you, Peter."

But the cards didn't fall that way. Selig and his minions tried everything to avoid putting the Expos here. They tried Portland, Ore.; Monterey, Mexico; Las Vegas; even Norfolk. They'd have negotiated with Tibet. In recent days, who's been doing baseball's final negotiations with the District? Reinsdorf, of course. Until the deal got serious, he wasn't the point man. But in the end game he's done the heavy lifting. His fingerprints are all over this deal. To every owner, that sends a message: Not many crumbs are left on the table.

Though Reinsdorf's White Sox teams never have captured a pennant, he has won plenty of deals and fought many a battle within baseball. That's his legacy, and he'll fight to protect it. And he's no stranger to fighting with Angelos. Reinsdorf is pro-management, conservative. Angelos is pro-labor, liberal.

Perhaps the final economic twist in the Expos story is that Washington's offer of a publicly funded $400-million-plus waterfront stadium in the fifth-largest market in the country means that the Expos are now worth significantly more to whatever group wins the bidding for the franchise.

By negotiating such a favorable deal with the District, Reinsdorf has potentially put extra money in every owner's pocket. If all hurdles are cleared and the day really arrives when the Expos go on the block for the highest Washington offer, the purchase price may approach $300 million -- or nearly $10 million for every owner in baseball.

That's why, right now, Selig and Reinsdorf appear to have the votes. And Angelos doesn't. Whether he likes it or not, every 11th-hour indication is that the plot has flipped. In what may be the final act of this Expos caper, Angelos has been fingered to take the fall. The guys he thought were protecting his wallet are probably about to bite him in his assets instead.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company