Baseball will return with the cherry blossoms to the nation's capital next spring when the Montreal Expos become Washington's fourth major league franchise and its first since the Washington Senators packed up and moved to Texas in 1971.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig made it official a few minutes after 4 p.m. yesterday in a call to D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams and a crowd of edgy council members and city sports officials gathered in city hall.

"Congratulations. It's been a long time coming," Selig said when he came on the line.

Those seven words brought great relief to Williams (D), who, despite assurances from baseball officials, said he worried all day that the call would not come.

"I was always looking for wood paneling, wood tables -- something to knock on," said the mayor as he emerged from the meeting wearing a bright-red Senators cap. "I'm elated. . . . Relieved. Satisfied. We put a lot of time into this, and it finally paid off."

The Expos are scheduled to play their first home game at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in April, providing the D.C. Council approves a $440 million financing package to build a new ballpark on the Anacostia waterfront less than a mile south of the U.S. Capitol. Yesterday, Williams said that a majority of the council is on board and that he has no doubt that the package will be approved by year's end.

Major League Baseball, which owns the Expos, must take a formal vote on the deal at a meeting scheduled for November. Baseball plans an auction to choose the team's new owners, who are expected to pick a new name.

Williams said yesterday that he will lobby baseball to sell the team to the Washington Baseball Club, a group of hometown investors who have underwritten the city's baseball quest. For his part, Williams said he prefers the name "The Grays" -- an homage to the Negro League franchise that played in Washington for years.

Reaction was quick and joyful. During a campaign stop in Minnesota, even Vice President Cheney said he's looking forward to Washington becoming a "ball town again."

"I think this will be a great boon to the community," Cheney said. "It will force a lot of us to reorient our loyalties. We've all picked up, acquired, become fans of other teams."

Jim Hannan, 65, who pitched for the Senators from 1962 to 1970, was delighted. "This is like coming off the disabled list after 33 years and somebody came up and said, 'Today, you are activated, Jim. You are playing in the World Series.' "

On Opening Day, the Expos will find a very different town from the one baseball abandoned 33 years ago today, when the Senators played their final innings at RFK. Then, Richard M. Nixon was president. The Vietnam War dominated the news. And the nation's capital was rapidly losing its middle class in the wake of the 1968 riots.

In that environment, the owner of the Senators, the late Robert Short, said baseball could not survive. "The only fans at Washington Senators games were the politicians and the pickpockets, and you couldn't tell the difference," said Short's son, Brian, a Minneapolis businessman.

Today, Washington lies at the heart of the nation's fifth-largest metropolitan area, which has more than 5 million residents. It is one of the most highly educated and affluent areas in the country and includes counties whose average household incomes are among the highest in the nation. The city boasts a newly revived urban core, $27 billion in development projects and one of the hottest real estate markets in the nation.

For two wearying years, baseball officials flirted with Washington while courting other jurisdictions that were interested in hosting the Expos, including fast-growing Las Vegas; Portland, Ore.; and Northern Virginia. In the end, it came down to the District and Loudon County, where Virginia officials proposed to build a stadium and a whole new town around it.

Virginia claimed that the area far eclipsed the District in terms of wealth and potential growth. In a written statement issued shortly after yesterday's announcement, Selig tacitly rejected that argument and acknowledged the District's dramatic transformation.

"Washington, D.C., as our nation's capital, is one of the world's most important cities," Selig said. "There has been tremendous growth in the Washington DC area over the last 33 years and we in Major League Baseball believe that baseball will be welcomed there and will be a great success."

Yesterday, Virginia officials congratulated the District, saying the competition had always been friendly.

"I urge all Virginia baseball supporters and fans to give their full support to our region's new team," said Gabe Paul Jr., executive director of the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority. "We must all put aside our differences and work together to make the Expos succeed."

A successful team is usually a winning team, however, and it may be a long time before Washington sees one of those. During 35 years in Montreal, the Expos have never won a World Series. They are now in last place in the National League's East Division, with 65 wins and 94 losses, and typically attract just a few thousand fans per game.

Last night, more than 31,000 people turned up to bid farewell to the Expos as they played their final game in Montreal. The score: Marlins 9, Expos 1.

"The sun is setting in Montreal, but it's rising in Washington," Expos President Tony Tavares told a news conference at Olympic Stadium. "To those of you in Washington, I say I look forward to seeing you down there."

Baseball bought the Expos two years ago for $120 million. Now that the team is moving to a city whose officials are offering to pay for a new stadium, baseball hopes to sell the franchise for more than $300 million.

The Washington Baseball Club is considered the early favorite. The group includes Jeff Zients, chairman of the Advisory Board Co., a Washington-based medical research firm; James V. Kimsey, co-founder of America Online; Frederic V. Malek, a former Nixon White House official who was part-owner of the Texas Rangers with President Bush; and Frankin D. Raines, a former Clinton administration official who heads Fannie Mae, one of the world's largest financial services companies.

But the club may face stiff competition.

Yesterday, New York real estate investor Mark Broxmeyer again said he intends to pursue the team with a group that he hopes will include such Republican heavyweights as Steve Forbes and former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

An adviser to the group, called the Baseball Club of America, said many questions must be answered before the bidding begins.

"Just to say the team is going to Washington, that's great. Now you have to figure out who owns the team and do we have enough time between now and next season to put an ownership group together," said Sal Galatioto of the Lehman Brothers financial firm. Galatioto also worried that there's too little time to market the team and sign new players before the start of the 2005 season.

Yesterday's announcement followed several days of negotiations between Major League Baseball and Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, for years Washington's chief nemesis in its quest to reclaim the national pastime. Angelos has long argued that a Washington team would steal fans and profits from the Orioles.

He seemed to soften his stand two days ago, saying that he could live with a team in Washington if baseball would provide financial guarantees to ensure that the Orioles can continue to be competitive. The Orioles play in the American League East Division, home of two of the wealthiest franchises in all of sports, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.

Selig announced the move to Washington even as negotiations continued between his lieutenants and Angelos. Last night, Angelos released a statement saying, "We have made substantial progress, but have not yet reached an agreement."

Selig said moving the Expos to within 30 miles of Baltimore "was a very awkward position that we found ourselves in and I found myself in."

"I am very sympathetic and sensitive to his concerns, " Selig said. "We don't want to hurt the franchise. But on the other hand, we want to go to the best place we can go to. It's my responsibility to make the best arrangement I can make."

Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who led baseball's relocation committee, said the nation's capital offered a market that was simply too good to pass up.

"We need to be represented in the national capital," Reinsdorf said. "It's the largest market in the country that didn't have baseball."

Williams and other city officials now face the politically perilous task of convincing D.C. residents that building a ballpark will benefit the city. Their financing package relies on annual lease payments from the team owners of about $5.5 million; taxes from in-stadium goods and services, including tickets, concessions and parking; and a gross-receipts tax on the nearly 2,000 city businesses that take in more than $3 million a year.

Staff writers Bill Brubaker, Hamil Harris, Serge Kovaleski, Ovetta Wiggins, Debbi Wilgoren and Yolanda Woodlee and staff researchers Meg Smith and Julie Tate contributed to this report.

Former Senators announcer Charlie Brotman, center, leads a chorus of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" with Mark Touhey, left, chairman of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, Mayor Anthony A. Williams and D.C. Council members Jack Evans and Linda Cropp.Montreal Expos first baseman Brad Wilkerson signs autographs before the team's final home game against the Florida Marlins yesterday.A Senators fan leans over the dugout to shake hands with Washington's Dave Nelson (No. 15) during the Senators' last home game Sept. 30, 1971.Mayor Anthony A. Williams holds up a signed home plate after he, D.C. Council members and other baseball backers announced the decision to move the Expos. The corner flag for the D.C. United soccer team is within feet of where home plate will be when the now-Montreal Expos take the field for their first home game at RFK Stadium next year.