If MLB and the D.C. Council fail to reach an agreement to keep the Nationals in Washington, baseball would be faced with the difficult question of what to do with the league-owned franchise next season.
The solution could be as simple as moving the team to one of the other cities that bid for it earlier this year -- Portland, Ore.; Monterrey, Mexico; Las Vegas; or Norfolk -- and selling it. Municipal officials and investment groups in those cities have expressed varying degrees of willingness as Washington's deal teeters on the edge of collapse.
None of those cities presents a perfect solution, however, especially on short notice. Las Vegas does not have a suitable stadium, though a baseball source said yesterday the city could still be the favorite should the D.C. deal fall through. The stadiums in Portland and Norfolk have Class AAA minor league tenants that have already sold 2005 tickets. A move to Monterrey likely would be opposed by the baseball players' union. And Las Vegas, Portland and Monterrey all would require a radical rewriting of baseball's 2005 master schedule because of their geographic locations.
The Nationals could play in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where the team played 22 games as the Montreal Expos each of the last two seasons. But the sparse crowds were a disappointment to baseball officials.
A more creative solution would have the Nationals playing their home games the next two seasons at Oriole Park at Camden Yards -- home of the Orioles and owner Peter Angelos, who vehemently opposes baseball's relocation to Washington -- then being eliminated along with another team after the 2006 season.
It may be far-fetched. But when asked about the short-term and long-term components of such a scenario, one baseball official paused and said: "It's not likely to happen. But at this point, I can't say it's out of the question. Nothing is out of the question."
It would not be unprecedented for two major league teams to share the same stadium. The Los Angeles Angels and Dodgers did it in the 1960s, and the New York Yankees and Mets shared Shea Stadium in 1974-75 when Yankee Stadium was undergoing an extensive renovation.
The biggest roadblock to the Nationals moving into someone else's stadium is that baseball's 2005 master schedule is already set, and it is unlikely that there is a suitable stadium in which the current tenant's schedule would not conflict greatly with the Nationals'.
"It's not necessarily impossible," said Katy Feeney, baseball's senior vice president for scheduling and club relations. "But it would be impossible to say for sure without knowing which facility we're talking about."
However, if officials started to investigate which team's home schedule could best accommodate a shared-stadium situation, they likely would find one clear answer: the Orioles.
After baseball announced its decision to move the Montreal Expos to Washington, it reconfigured the schedules of the then-unnamed Washington team and that of the Orioles so that the teams shared only 25 home dates. Baseball could overcome those conflicts by scheduling the Nationals' games in the day, with the Orioles at night, or vice versa. And the 2006 schedule could be worked out to provide fewer conflicts.
However, acknowledging Angelos's impassioned opposition to the Washington team, one industry source said tongue-in-cheek, "Can you imagine what the rent payments would be?"
Asked about the possibility of the Orioles sharing Camden Yards with the Nationals on a temporary basis, Orioles Executive Director of Communications Spiro P. Alafassos declined to comment, citing the team's negotiations with MLB over a compensation package for the Orioles should the Nationals ultimately stay in Washington.
Once baseball finds a home for the team for the 2005 season, it would be faced with the question of its long-term future. And the longer the league continues to own the franchise, which it bought for $120 million in 2001, the closer it gets to the point where contraction -- which the league attempted to do with the Montreal Expos and Minnesota Twins in 2002, before abandoning the strategy in the face of political opposition and union resistance -- becomes the most sensible.
"Contraction suddenly becomes a viable option," said Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based sports consulting firm SportsCorp Ltd. "Economically, it makes better sense in the long run for the other teams in baseball."
Asked about the possibility yesterday, an MLB spokesman said flatly, "Contraction is off the table."
Baseball is blocked from revisiting contraction until after the 2006 season, when the current collective bargaining agreement with the union runs out. As part of their negotiations on the current CBA, MLB agreed not to pursue contraction until the agreement expired, while the union agreed not to contest contraction after the agreement's expiration.
Gene Orza, the union's chief operating officer, did not return telephone messages seeking comment, and a spokesman said the union would have no comment.
Baseball would face additional obstacles should it choose to pursue contraction again, most notably finding a second team to contract along with the Nationals; a second team is virtually a requirement because of scheduling issues. Although baseball still has poor teams, the sport's general health has improved in recent years, and there undoubtedly would be political resistance to contracting a second team.
"Many of the teams mentioned for contraction [three years ago] seem to be making at least some sort of progress," said Mike Shapiro, a sports management consultant who has worked on Las Vegas's bid for a baseball team. "The Twins have been moving forward on their [new] ballpark. So I would think [contraction] is possible, but only as a course of last resort."
One baseball official acknowledged that contraction might make sense for the Nationals, but said: "The problem is [finding] the other team. It's an absolute PR disaster, as we found out the hard way."