The supposedly deep-pockets group that hopes to move the financially troubled Montreal Expos to Northern Virginia had its legal right to do business in Virginia terminated Dec. 31 because it didn't pay the state's annual registration fee -- $50.

"This is extremely embarrassing," the group's lawyer, David M. Davenport, said recently after the group learned from a Washington Post reporter that it had not registered to operate this year in Virginia. "But it will be fixed." It was, on June 15, after the group paid the fee and a penalty.

A bad omen for Washington's long-suffering baseball fans?

Not to worry, said the group's leader, William L. Collins III, who also heads Metrocall Inc., the nation's second-largest pager company. "Raising money to bring a baseball team to Virginia will not be a problem," he said. "That's the least of my concerns."

Since launching his baseball bid five years ago, Collins has seen the value of Metrocall's stock plummet. His baseball group also has lost a key investor: Mark R. Warner, an Alexandria technology investor, who bowed out to run for the U.S. Senate in 1996. Now the most recognizable member of the group -- FOX-TV football studio host James Brown -- is having second thoughts about his involvement.

Yet there are indications that Collins's group, which failed to acquire a major league baseball expansion franchise in 1994 and the Houston Astros in 1995, has the financial clout to bring a big league team back to the Washington area after a 28-year absence.

His group recently made a $600,000 payment to its partner in the bid, the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority. And, in a recent interview, Astros owner Drayton McLane Jr. spoke with admiration about the Collins group. "They're accomplished business people that have an excellent, superb reputation," he said. "They had the financial strength" to buy the Astros.

There are signs the Expos will be sold if a deal to build a new stadium in Montreal isn't made soon. The National League team, which analysts say is worth between $100 million and $150 million, has been regularly drawing crowds of less than 10,000 to its outdated 46,500-seat ballpark this season.

"We think there's a great opportunity for us when you look at what's taking place in Montreal," Collins said. If the Expos are put up for sale, "I would be incredibly encouraged because there's no place better in the nation where major league baseball should be in the new millennium than the Commonwealth of Virginia and the national capital area."

Rival groups that want to bring baseball to the District of Columbia and Charlotte also are in the picture, hoping to buy the Expos. The D.C. group is headed by Rockville-based developer Douglas Jemal; another D.C. group soon could be formed, sources in the Washington business community said Friday.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) has announced a campaign to bring a team to the District, and the D.C. Sports Commission has identified two locations for a ballpark: RFK Stadium (either the existing facility, after renovations, or a new one) and Mount Vernon Square downtown.

"We think a close-in location is the place where baseball should be," said Paul Wolff, a Washington lawyer who chairs the commission's budget and finance committee. "The heart of the area is the District of Columbia -- not Northern Virginia. We also think there is a tremendous opportunity to exploit the team being in the nation's capital with almost 30 million tourists here a year."

A Washington area team likely would be opposed by Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos. He has said a team in the District or Northern Virginia would hurt his franchise financially.

Whether Jemal's group has the money to bring a team to the District is unclear. Few of his would-be investors have identified themselves publicly, and one member of the group, Bertram Lee, a former part-owner of the NBA's Denver Nuggets, recently acknowledged having financial problems, though he said they are on the mend.

Jemal recently declined to name the members of his group. "I have nothing to say about the partners," he said.

Another Turn at Bat

Collins's group -- officially, the Virginia Baseball Club Limited Liability Company -- is known in major league baseball circles for its tenacity.

So far, the group has been scrutinized -- apparently with favorable results -- by three entities: Major League Baseball's expansion committee, Astros owner McLane and the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority, the state agency established in 1995 to find a suitable stadium site.

The stadium authority has granted Collins's group the exclusive right to lease any baseball stadium it builds. In return, the group has paid the authority $712,500 in nonrefundable fees and $787,500 in interest-free loans that will be repaid only if a stadium is built, state records show. The authority has used some of this money to study possible stadium sites in Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun counties. No site has been chosen.

Gabe Paul Jr., the authority's executive director, said these payments are further evidence of the Collins group's financial credibility.

"I mean, they've got a significant amount of money invested," he said. "And they wouldn't have invested that money had they not thought Northern Virginia was the best place to put a ballclub."

At various times, the Collins group has included technology multimillionaire Warner (who is considering a run for Virginia governor in 2001); Friedman, Billings, Ramsey Group Inc., an Arlington investment banking and asset management firm; FOX-TV's Brown, a Bethesda resident who was a schoolmate of Collins's at DeMatha High in Hyattsville; and Charlotte-based First Union National Bank. First Union is both an investor and potential lender, having approved $100 million in financing for the purchase of a team in Northern Virginia, Collins said.

Collins, 49, said he plans to invest personally a minimum of $10 million in the team.

"Believe me, we're for real," said Michael T. Scanlon Jr., a Metrocall senior vice president who is a member of the group. "We have money in the bank and we have invested nearly $4 million in this effort."

The effort began in 1994, when Collins's group competed against Phoenix and Tampa-St. Petersburg to acquire one of two expansion teams that would be awarded in 1995. According to Collins, members of his group each put up 15 percent of the money they committed to invest. That money was used to bankroll the stadium authority and to lobby major league owners and officials.

During the expansion bid, "There was never a question about our financial capability," said Collins, a former baseball player at DeMatha and George Washington University, and in the Milwaukee Brewers' minor league system.

"Major League Baseball did significant due diligence on about eight of us [in the Northern Virginia group] . . . the people who were taking the big pieces. We went through two in-depth sessions with the expansion committee and they made jokes about the financial statements [of group members]. A couple of owners said: I cannot understand that some of you have no debt. How do you do that? A couple of our people said: We abhor debt."

Richard Levin, a spokesman for Major League Baseball, confirmed that financial records provided by the Collins group were scrutinized. He declined to discuss specifics.

In 1995, after his group finished third in the expansion sweepstakes, Collins called Astros owner McLane, who was unhappy with the support his team was getting in Houston. Collins said his group was prepared to buy 80 percent of the Astros; McLane wanted to retain a 20 percent stake. The total cost of the team, including McLane's piece, would have been about $150 million, Collins said.

McLane had preliminary negotiations with Collins and met several members of the Northern Virginia group.

"I knew of Bill Collins and his reputation, and he's a very impressive person to talk to," said McLane, owner of the largest wholesale grocery distributor in the United States. ". . . We took the [financial information] he had given baseball, an extensive amount of information. . . . It looked very promising."

The negotiations to sell the Astros broke off because baseball's leaders opposed the proposed relocation.

McLane said he never concluded whether major league baseball would do better in the District or Northern Virginia.

"The city," he said, ". . . is where baseball generally works the best."

Finding the Money

Since the Astros' deal fell through, Collins's company has gone through some rough times.

Metrocall reported a net loss of $126.5 million last year and a $46 million loss for the first quarter of this year. The value of the company's stock also has dropped sharply: from $27.75 a share on Sept. 29, 1995 -- when Collins was still negotiating with McLane -- to $3.13 at Friday's closing price on Nasdaq.

Scanlon said the losses are related to debts Metrocall has undertaken to acquire other companies, including a division of AT&T last October. These acquisitions "eventually will put Metrocall in a very top-notch position either to be a very profitable company or to be an acquisition target for a larger company," Scanlon said.

Collins owns 574,933 shares of Metrocall stock, according to a report the company filed in April with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The stock is worth $1.8 million, based on Friday's closing price. Collins has the right to buy another 800,000 shares, the report said, although these options are not worth much unless Metrocall's stock increases significantly in value. Last year, Collins received a salary of $496,159 and a bonus of $425,000, Metrocall reported.

Collins said the decline in Metrocall's stock price will have no bearing on his baseball bid. He noted that a decade before his association with Metrocall began in 1994, he already had "very significant" interests in the cable TV and cellular telephone industries. Collins also owns two minor league baseball teams.

Although Warner is no longer involved in the baseball team bid, Collins said his core group of about two dozen investors remains largely intact. Some members of the group have asked to remain anonymous, while others have pledged their support only if a team is awarded to Northern Virginia, Collins said.

"We have a major concessionaire who has been part of this from Day One," he said. "Same way, we will have a major developer involved with us. We have probably 30 other people who have approached me over the past three or four years. One of them is among the wealthiest people in America . . . a private family that will come in once we have a deal.

"If I went through some of the names -- I mean, it's the who's who of Northern Virginia and a who's who of the communications industry. There are two or three other major banks . . . major cable companies. The vice chairman of one of the largest investment banking firms on Wall Street. A major retailer."

One high-profile, though relatively minor, investor in the group is having second thoughts, however.

FOX-TV's Brown, who grew up in Northeast Washington, said he joined the Northern Virginia effort in 1994 because no similar group existed in the District. "I still consider myself a DC-ite," he said. ". . . Certainly if there was a D.C. group and I had been asked to be a part of that, I certainly would have."

Brown lent his sportscaster's celebrity to the Collins group, appearing in a promotional video that trumpeted Northern Virginia's virtues. But with the District now in the picture, Brown has a dilemma.

"I'd rather not comment," he said the other day, when asked if he is still associated with the Collins group. ". . . Bill and I have yet to sit down and discuss whether or not there is a mutual interest there."

CAPTION: Because of declining attendance at Montreal's Olympic Stadium, groups in the Washington area and Charlotte have expressed interest in moving the Expos.