As Major League Baseball owners completed their two-day winter meetings by adopting a major core policy change by giving the winning league of the all-star game home-field advantage in the World Series starting this fall, Commissioner Bud Selig left open the possibility that relocation might not occur for the 2004 season.

MLB's relocation committee has decided to begin interviewing government officials from several locales seeking the Montreal Expos in the next three to four weeks, although it will not require full presentations at that time, sources familiar with the process said today.

"Nothing is certain right now," Selig said. "But we do hope to move very quickly on that issue."

The new competitive aspect for the all-star game needs the approval of the MLB Players Association. Greg Bouris, a spokesman for the union, said his leaders will poll the membership before resuming negotiations with MLB representatives. Selig said that Fox Sports, which owns the league's television broadcast rights, had been pressing for such a change for several years and played down suggestions that the new policy was a response to his calling last year's game after 11 innings because the teams had run out of pitchers.

"This was the fans' game for a many, many years, and hopefully it will be again," Selig said. "The [fans] deserve the intensity that they see all year long. It wasn't for many years -- and should not be -- a meaningless exhibition game. . . . This is an issue that our television partners have very strong feelings," he said, pointing that it all fits in with baseball's marketing initiative that will examine every issue besides labor and the economics of the game.

Meanwhile, the District, Northern Virginia and Portland, Ore., are the leading candidates among as many as eight locales that will be issued invitations to meet with the committee. All three locales are working on finishing financing plans and choosing a site for a new ballpark. Northern Virginia officials said this week they would not seek approval from the legislature for financing during the current session of the General Assembly. Sources speaking on the condition of anonymity said that no deadline has been set for final plans to be approved in order to be considered this year. But Northern Virginia's chances rest partially on how other locales do with their proposals. A source said that Northern Virginia's credibility would not be as strong as other locales with plans in place, but said that MLB would approach Northern Virginia and advise them that other locales were ahead of their pace and would ask Northern Virginia officials what else they could do at that time.

Gabe Paul, Jr., executive director of the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority, said he remains "very optimistic" that a conditional award to his locale would "change the dynamics" of government leaders and rekindle the ability to sell their strategy to baseball.

Sources said that the committee moved up its initial meeting with the government officials -- which are not to include representatives of any potential ownership group -- in order to "get to meet" the various groups and to gauge governmental and community support. At that time, the committee also will outline what it expects in a formal proposal from each locale seeking the Expos. The source said key elements would include how much public financing can be made available for a new ballpark and the terms of the lease. The other details and a timetable are still to be determined, the source said.

Selig characterized the work of the committee as being in its "embryonic" stages. A source said there's a misconception about the role of the relocation committee. He said it would not make a recommendation to the owners but send the information that it gathers to Selig, who would make the recommendation.

In another development, MLB Vice President Sandy Alderson outlined steps MLB will take to shorten the length of games. A new strategy to eliminate time between the start of an inning, when pitchers take too much time between pitches and when hitters sometimes are not ready for pitches would be implemented in spring training. Baseball unveiled the plan during the winter meetings in Nashville last month, a session the owners do not attend.