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Baseball's Return Could Be Temporary

Amended Financing May Kill the Deal

By Barry Svrluga and Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 15, 2004; Page D01

Since MLB bought the Montreal Expos in 2002, it has been looking for two elements -- a new owner and a new home, providing a delicate, chicken-and-the-egg balance that may have reappeared last night. Which should come first? A new owner, who might not provide a new stadium, or a new city, with no committed buyer? The D.C. Council may have started that process all over again last night. Because the council voted to include an amendment in its deal with MLB that half of the financing for a new stadium must come from private funds, officials at the highest level of baseball said it is possible the sport could make a one-year pit stop in Washington, and that places as far-flung as northern New Jersey and Las Vegas might now be back in play. "I think it's a deal-killer," one official said of the amendment's effect on baseball in the District.

MLB had scheduled the move of the Montreal franchise to Washington, pending the District coming through on an agreement that provided the city would build a publicly financed stadium on the Anacostia River waterfront. Financing was to come from a gross receipts tax on the city's largest businesses, a tax on concessions and an annual rent payment by the team -- a deal baseball officials say was fundamentally changed by the council last night.

Councilman Harold Brazil wears a Nationals hat during meeting. (Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

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Returning to Canada is unrealistic, because the team's operations in Montreal are all but shut down; all that remains is a bare-bones accounting office. The team, which was renamed the Washington Nationals in a festive ceremony last month at Union Station, has already set up shop in the District, taking deposits for more than 16,000 season tickets, hiring 17 members of a front-office staff last week and selling memorabilia outside of RFK Stadium. That facility, which hasn't been home to a baseball team in 33 years, is scheduled to undergo at least $13 million in renovations to accommodate the Nationals.

But baseball officials believe that the council's actions could let them out of their deal and free them to pursue other potential suitors. Commissioner Bud Selig, in Dallas last night, was unavailable for comment. But in an appearance in Washington this month, Selig said simply, "We have a deal." Despite the fact that baseball officials had worked with D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp on minor concessions, Selig and others were clear that baseball intended to uphold its end of the original plan, and it expected District officials to uphold theirs.

Baseball and club officials scrambled last night to react to the news. Nationals President Tony Tavares, speaking by telephone late last night, said an event to unveil the team's uniforms -- scheduled for this afternoon at the ESPN Zone downtown -- likely will be canceled. Tavares, who was in California for the birth of a grandchild, said he watched the council's vote via the Internet.

"I have no reaction," Tavares said. "It's politics, and I'm going to see how it all plays out. It would be inappropriate to have more of a reaction right now."

Baseball officials reacted similarly.

"We're not going to comment piecemeal on these amendments," MLB President Bob DuPuy said. "We will comment in the morning after the legislation has been voted on and after we've had time to review it and talk it over with the commissioner."

Tavares has maintained since he arrived in town in October that he must proceed in setting up the team's operations as if there were no potential political hurdles. Therefore, the team has been selling tickets and memorabilia -- more than $100,000 worth in the souvenir store's first week, according to club officials -- as if the home opener at RFK would be April 14 against the Arizona Diamondbacks, as scheduled.

But the feeling at the top levels of baseball was that, should the franchise move to Washington without a stadium deal in place, MLB would lose leverage with District officials in getting a favorable stadium deal, and therefore would look elsewhere. One baseball official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, questioned why anyone with ties to the District would try to buy the team given the situation. Baseball hopes it will sell the franchise for between $350 million and $400 million.

"How do you sell this franchise?" the source said. "What are you telling someone they have? They have a stadium? They might have a stadium? I think they just killed baseball in Washington."

Quietly, baseball officials had worked with officials in northern New Jersey over the summer to move the Expos there, a fact that had not come to light until the Washington negotiations became shaky. The mayor of Las Vegas, Oscar B. Goodman, appeared with showgirls at his side during baseball's winter meetings over the weekend in Anaheim, Calif., at least in part because Florida Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria had shown interest in moving his franchise to that city.

Other candidates that lost out on the Expos in competition with Washington are Northern Virginia, Norfolk, Portland, Ore., and Monterrey, Mexico.

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