The reluctance of Commissioner of Baseball Allan H. "Bud" Selig to move the Montreal Expos to the Washington area has led Major League Baseball to a 15-acre parking lot behind the Las Vegas Strip.
Here, on pavement hot enough to melt shoes, investors hope to build a $500 million ballpark for all occasions. They call it a "smart stadium" and it would be home to the wayward Expos during the major league season, then be reconfigured to accommodate boxing, concerts and other events the rest of the year.
The plan is a fanciful one, even by Vegas's lofty standards. It relies almost entirely on private funds from still-unidentified sources. It seeks to fold the national pastime into a neon world that exists to encourage gambling, a baseball taboo ever since gamblers fixed the 1919 World Series.
But Las Vegas, like four other North American cities also under consideration, has one distinct advantage: It would enable Selig to avoid a confrontation with Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, who contends that placing the Expos in Washington or Northern Virginia would cause irrevocable harm to his franchise.
Throughout the relocation process, the commissioner has directed his handpicked relocation committee to seek alternatives to D.C. or Northern Virginia, according to major league officials close to relocation. Last summer, Selig encouraged discussions that led to Las Vegas's formal entry into the process, a source involved in the Vegas effort said.
But 21/2 years after Major League Baseball took control of the Expos, Selig appears to be running out of options. Like Norfolk, Portland, Ore.; Monterrey, Mexico; and San Juan, Puerto Rico, Las Vegas holds as many questions as answers, leading some baseball officials to ask whether Selig's choices are limited beyond the Washington area.
"Look around: They really don't have any other options -- other than Washington or Northern Virginia," said a major league official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.
MLB President Robert A. DuPuy disagrees, saying there are "at least five viable options" for the Expos. "While the press continues to focus on D.C. and Northern Virginia, we continue to receive information and refined offers from the other candidates as well," DuPuy said in an e-mail this week.
The story of how Las Vegas came to appear on MLB's radar screen shows the lengths to which Selig has gone to find alternatives to the Washington area, which would immediately become the sixth largest major league baseball population area behind New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia.
As recently as last year, Las Vegas ranked near the bottom of a list of relocation cities compiled by MLB, according to people familiar with the study. Its population, 1.56 million, would have made it the second-smallest population area in baseball after Milwaukee. The idea of associating the sport so closely with gambling was considered by many a nonstarter.
In addition, Las Vegas sports teams have suffered from low attendance recently. The past five seasons, the Class AAA Las Vegas 51s have not averaged more than 4,800 fans despite playing in a 9,334-seat stadium and the UNLV basketball team hasn't cracked the 12,000-fan average at 18,500-seat Thomas & Mack arena. The highest attendance at the Las Vegas Bowl since 1999 still resulted in more than 9,000 empty seats.
But the city used connections, as well as bold promises by popular mayor Oscar B. Goodman, a former mob lawyer, to vault near the top of the list.
The Democrat was approached last year by a Chicago businessman and Democratic Party contributor, Lou Weisbach, who told him he wanted to bring professional sports to Las Vegas.
Goodman, in an interview, said Weisbach "was a very impressive looking fellow, very well-dressed, certainly monied," and he allowed Weisbach to represent him in discussions with MLB.
Weisbach contacted Steve Stone, the former major league pitcher and Chicago Cubs broadcaster, who has been trying for years to buy a team. Stone contacted Selig, a longtime friend. The commissioner directed Stone to Corey Busch, his consultant on relocation issues. Busch, in turn, recommended that Weisbach hire his own consultant. He recommended his own close friend, Michael Shapiro, the former general counsel for the San Francisco Giants and later the Atlanta Braves. Earlier, Shapiro had worked in the administration of former California Gov. Jerry Brown at the same time Busch was press secretary to late San Francisco mayor George Moscone.
Shapiro said he initially thought the idea "was a reach" but was persuaded after looking at Las Vegas's tourism figures and astronomical growth. The city drew 35 million tourists in 2003. Those who visited casinos gambled an average of 3.9 hours a day, leaving time for other activities such as baseball.
On July 7 last year, a letter written by Shapiro and signed by Goodman on City of Las Vegas stationery seemed to offer baseball a fully funded downtown stadium.
Goodman wrote: "I will begin a process to attempt to establish an impact fee on visitors to the city, such as a $2 tax per room per day for a 2-year period or similar tax so as to create sufficient bonding capacity to fund the stadium facilities. Such a program could fully fund a magnificent new retractable stadium."
Goodman predicted that the local casinos would support the Expos. "Of course, gambling on our team would not be permitted," he wrote.
The letter seemed to catch baseball's attention. Two months later, members of the relocation committee -- including Busch and John McHale Jr., baseball's executive vice president for administration and a member of the relocation committee -- flew to Las Vegas to hear Goodman's proposal and to be entertained by Weisbach.
Members of the group took in a Celine Dion concert at Caesar's Palace courtesy of Weisbach and dined at Prime, a Jean-Georges Vongerichten-operated steakhouse inside the Bellagio hotel. On the morning of Sept. 12, the group toured the proposed downtown stadium site, then returned to the Bellagio for a meeting with Goodman in the Renoir conference room.
Goodman told stories about his cameo appearance in the mob movie "Casino." He confessed to the baseball officials, "I drink to excess, I gamble to excess, but everyone knows it, so it's not a big deal."
But it quickly became clear that his promises were a mirage. The downtown site the group had just visited was soon no longer available. Moreover, the proposed public financing was gone. The tax outlined in Goodman's letter required the approval of the state legislature, which will not meet on the issue until 2005.
Las Vegas was now proposing a privately funded stadium on another site. That proposal, confined to one page in a 33-page booklet presented to MLB, called for a $200 million private construction loan -- $30 million more than what the San Francisco Giants borrowed to build Pacific Bell Park. The proposal also anticipated $225 million in unspecified "third party" contributions.
Goodman now says he always intended to offer baseball a privately financed deal. He also said he had no intention of giving the impression that the casinos would alter their sports betting policy. The mayor predicted that the casinos would never eliminate betting on baseball, including a Vegas team.
"It's a matter of principle at this point, and, from my perspective, I don't think they should," he said. "There's nothing wrong with it."
Selig has said publicly that the proliferation of gambling throughout the United States has forced baseball to reassess its position on gambling. Casinos are allowed to advertise with major league teams as long as gambling is not specifically mentioned. The Expos, who are operated by MLB, have an online casino as a main sponsor.
"Gambling has become part of the legal entertainment options in more than half the states in our country," DuPuy said. "However, Nevada still is the only state with a legal sports book, which is an issue for us and one we continue to discuss."
During the Sept. 12 meeting, McHale asked how baseball could reconcile putting a team in Las Vegas at the same time Selig was maintaining a lifetime ban on former Cincinnati Reds player and manager Pete Rose for betting on baseball.
"It's easy," one of the participants joked. "Just make him the manager."
With the downtown site no longer under consideration, Vegas advocates are now pushing a parking lot behind the Paris, Bally's and Aladdin hotels/casinos as the potential site for the Expos. The parking lot is owned by Caesar's Entertainment, the owner of Caesar's Palace, and, because it sits on the Vegas Strip, is outside of Goodman's jurisdiction.
Shapiro, who continues to head the Vegas bid, said no gambling would take place in the proposed stadium. The stadium owners, he said, would merely lease the site from Caesar's.
Because the stadium would be privately financed, the owners would need not only the Expos but also some 180 to 200 dates of other events to make the deal work economically. "It doesn't pencil out," said a businessman who has followed the negotiations from the beginning. "There's absolutely no there there."
MLB had hoped to announce a decision during quarterly owners meetings Aug. 18-19 in Philadelphia. League officials said that timetable now appears unlikely. Selig has said only that he would like to resolve the Expos matter sometime this summer.
"Given the number of candidates and the number of moving pieces, we want to get it right and provide the best opportunity for a successful franchise," DuPuy said.
Baseball officials contend the competition remains wide open. They said the decision has been complicated not only by the Orioles issue but also the inability of all the bidders, including D.C. and Northern Virginia, to put forward a completed financing plan to build a new ballpark that baseball has made a pre-condition for relocation.
Shapiro said he believes Las Vegas remains a strong candidate.
"I came in as a skeptic," he said. "And I have no doubt now that a team will be successful there."
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.