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In Stretch, MLB Eyes Expos Options

Club's Fate Looks Highly Uncertain

By Steve Fainaru Mark Asher
and
Thursday, September 11, 2003; Page D05

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, Sept. 10 -- As the Montreal Expos play the last of 22 "home" games here Thursday, the club's fate has never been more uncertain, with Major League Baseball now considering at least six cities in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico as temporary or permanent locations for the beleaguered franchise.

Although many officials believe baseball has run out of time to move the team to Washington, Northern Virginia or Portland, Ore., by next season, Commissioner Bud Selig today refused to rule out a solution that involves one of the three jurisdictions vying to provide the Expos with a permanent home. He also reaffirmed his opinion of nearly two years ago that the Washington area is "the prime candidate" for a relocated Expos franchise.

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"I haven't changed my mind since then; there's nothing that's changed my mind," Selig said. "I understand the sensitivities and concerns of people who want a decision. . . . I understand the whole Washington situation as well as anybody on the face of the earth. Now we'll just wait and see what the relocation committee comes up with."

Major League Baseball, which purchased the Montreal franchise in 2001, scheduled three homestands in San Juan this season as a way to increase revenue until the club could be sold and moved. Baseball set a goal, if not a deadline, of the July all-star break to reach a permanent solution, but after the date passed the club's future has become increasingly murky.

Expos President Tony Tavares said MLB and Washington are locked in a standoff over the refusal of D.C. officials to move ahead with a stadium financing package unless baseball awards the team to Washington. Baseball officials insist that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to make a decision unless the financing is in place.

Tavares said he did not think baseball would agree to award the franchise under Washington's conditions. "I don't think it's a smart move by Washington," he said. "You're basically asking baseball to declare the winner of a contest that isn't over. I think that's the cart before the horse as far as baseball is concerned."

Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), chairman of D.C. Council's revenue and finance committee, said his position is firm. "We're not going to put together a plan until they commit to Washington," he said. "The support of the population is behind us; it just is. It's very doable, but they have to commit to Washington because, frankly, it makes no sense for an elected official, an appointed official or any official to jump through all these hoops only to be turned down [by MLB]. Major League officials have shown, if anything, it's a group that has not earned our trust."

Tony Bullock, spokesman for Mayor Anthony A. Williams, described the mayor and Evans as "pretty much in sync" but said: "I don't think we're at a . . . standoff, I think we're more at a fish-or-cut-bait. We want to know if we're going to be doing something or not." Bullock suggested that the mayor is not necessarily looking for "a signed commitment, but give us a signal, some kind of sign."

Northern Virginia has also asked baseball for a "conditional award" before it will move ahead to secure additional financing for a new stadium. Of the jurisdictions seeking the Expos permanently, only Portland, Ore., has agreed to baseball's demands. The Oregon legislature narrowly passed a $150 million stadium-financing bill last month and Portland proponents are seeking additional financing from the city.

Tavares said he would be "shocked" if baseball reached a permanent solution for next season. "I just don't see anything happening in the way of a permanent solution," he said.

However, Selig continued to leave open the possibility. "We haven't ruled out anything yet and we won't," he said during a news conference at a San Juan hotel. "We're trying to make the best of a very tenuous, tough situation, and we don't need to engage in needless speculation. Obviously we all know it's difficult and the longer you wait the more difficult it is. But people have gotten franchises later and done what they have to do to be successful."

Expos players met this week to consider three temporary options for 2004: a full 81-game home schedule in Montreal; a split schedule including 22 home games in San Juan; or a split schedule including 22 home games in Monterrey, Mexico. Earlier in the season, the players rejected the idea of another split season. The players reversed that decision Friday after MLB told them it would be difficult to maintain the payroll without the additional revenue generated by games in San Juan or Monterrey.

Brian Schneider, the Expos' player representative, said the team was told that "a significant amount" of the payroll would be cut without the split schedule, and that it would be difficult to keep the team together. "We didn't want the split schedule," he said. "We want one home like every other major league team. But obviously, we're in a different boat."

Baseball opted not to expand the team's roster Sept. 1, a decision that Gene Orza, associate counsel of the Major League Baseball Players Association, said he had not witnessed in nearly two decades. The move, according to baseball sources, saved about $150,000, or $5,172.41 for each of the 29 teams that subsidize the Expos.

Selig denied the suggestion by some players that the move was an effort by baseball to pressure them into accepting a split schedule. "That is not only incorrect it's just not a fact," said Selig. "Look, everything in life runs on budgets. The Montreal club, because they had a lot of injuries, is significantly over their budget. That's all that was involved. I understand the Montreal players' concerns. Actually, I'm sensitive to them. But can you tie the two together? Absolutely not."

Selig said the Puerto Rico experiment "worked out far better than any of us had a right to expect." MLB received more than $300,000 for each of the 22 games and additional revenue after gross receipts topped $10 million during the last homestand, but it is unclear whether that will be enough to keep together what Manager Frank Robinson called "the nucleus of a championship team."

Asked when a decision might be reached regarding next season, Selig said, "As soon as humanly possible."

Asher contributed to this report from Washington.


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