With their financing package apparently on the brink of falling apart, the Montreal Expos once more face an uncertain future in the city the franchise has called home for three decades.
Groups from the District and Northern Virginia -- along with one from Charlotte -- say they are poised to bid for the team if it is put on the open market. Both local groups want the Expos to play next season at RFK Stadium. The Northern Virginia investors want to construct a stadium in the Virginia suburbs, and the District group has discussed building a stadium or refurbishing RFK.
Both groups face strong opposition from several owners, including Peter Angelos of the Baltimore Orioles, who are against relocating a franchise so close to an established one.
Regardless, the Expos may be Washington's best chance of getting a major league team since the Senators departed for Texas after the 1971 season.
Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig declined to set a deadline for the Expos to have their financing package complete. He denied news reports of an Oct. 30 deadline, but hinted that he wants a final decision on the Expos sometime after the regular season ends Oct. 3, perhaps by the end of the World Series.
Selig admitted yesterday he is almost out of patience, having waited for almost a year for papers to be signed that would give the franchise new ownership and an infusion of new capital.
"This thing has gone on longer than `Gone With the Wind,' " he said, "and there's no Rhett Butler or Scarlett O'Hara."
Expos President Claude Brochu was prepared to sell the Expos after last season, but was blocked by his investors, who wanted to keep the team in Montreal. Since then, a group headed by one of Brochu's partners, Jacques Menard, has attempted to assemble investors to purchase the team from Brochu.
While constructing new ownership for the franchise, Menard also has been attempting to acquire financing for a 37,000-seat downtown ballpark, considered a critical element to keeping the team viable in Montreal.
Two weeks ago, baseball officials were told that the new ownership consortium was in place. But this week, the deal apparently began to unravel, with some reports indicating that the key player in the deal -- New York art dealer Jeffrey Loria -- had decided not to make a $50 million investment.
A source in Montreal attempted to paint a more positive picture of the situation yesterday, saying: "I think everything is going to fall into place shortly. There's obviously some bumps in the road and some obstacles to overcome, but these are businessmen negotiating a deal. They're down to the nitty-gritty of the negotiations."
Selig and other baseball executives believe that after a year the negotiations already should have been wrapped up. Owners were prepared to vote on the Montreal financing packages and stadium plan last week when Loria's group sought a delay. A variety of baseball sources believe that Loria may be getting nervous about the deal. However, Montreal officials indicate Loria is still enthusiastic about running the Expos and simply is negotiating final details.
Loria, who bid on the Orioles when Angelos bought the team in 1993, would be the new managing partner of the Expos. But after months of examining the team's financial records, he still hasn't signed off on the deal.
One of his concerns is that he wants a 40,000-seat stadium to be constructed instead of the 37,000-seat facility that's currently planned.
Nevertheless, Menard described the problems holding up the agreement as "substantive issues." Brochu described them as "fundamental issues."