SBJ/September 21 - 27, 1998/No Topic Name

Oriole boss on Expos: Not in my back yard

MILWAUKEE — Those near the nation's capital who are lining up to bid for what soon may be a nomadic baseball franchise, that of the long-embattled Montreal Expos, should be reminded of this point: Two years after baseball's last aborted flirtation with Northern Virginia, the man who lives up the street remains steadfastly opposed to accepting a new neighbor.

"You have a very viable franchise servicing that market already," said Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, whose club has emerged as one of baseball's five larger revenue producers. "Why tamper with success? This is working. The Orioles contribute millions of dollars of revenue sharing in support of the rest of baseball. Why does everybody want to fool with that? Let's ruin it. Let's diminish it. Let's dilute the market and make it one more city where a team is losing money. Why?"

Those who suggest such a shift can stack demographic reasons high enough to rival the Washington Monument.

Metro Washington — when considered separately from Baltimore and the 2.4 million residents in its metro area — boasts a population of 4.5 million, making it the largest market in the United States that doesn't have baseball and larger than many that do. It is the nation's seventh largest TV market. Four of the wealthier counties in the nation, including Fairfax County in Virginia, are suburbs of the District of Columbia. Baseball in the district also would give the game better access to international visitors, helping it to promote itself worldwide.

It is a booming market, without question. And Angelos insists it's part of his turf.

"Why put a team in a market where there's already a team?" Angelos asked at last week's quarterly owners' meetings in Milwaukee, adding that the possibility of the Expos' move hadn't been discussed at any of the general sessions. "Two teams don't even work in Chicago or New York. Look at Oakland and San Francisco. Is that what people want? Another situation like that? I don't see it."

By the letter of baseball's bylaws, Angelos would have slim recourse if the rest of the owners didn't buy his arguments. Rallying a coalition to block a move within the National League would be more difficult than doing so within his own league.

But Northern Virginia's ownership group, led by telecommunications executive William L. Collins III, has failed within the National League once already. Collins had a deal in hand two years ago to buy the Houston Astros, but the league blocked it, and the Astros eventually secured stadium financing in Houston.

Angelos would build any coalition around the concept of territorial protection, which will become a sensitive issue in the coming year as newly canonized Commissioner Bud Selig nudges the game toward realignment.

Those who fear such shifts — such as the Giants, who don't want to play in the same league as Oakland — might side with Angelos, ensuring that he'd do the same for them. His likely opponents are those who might want to move into the district market or elsewhere, as well as those who view any blockage of an owner's rights as a threat.

"All of baseball's ownership groups recognize the value of the Orioles," Angelos said. "This would hurt us, and so in many ways it would hurt baseball. If it [the Expos' move] has to happen, OK. But put them in a market where there is no team."

The issue has caught life because the potential for a move by the Expos is being taken seriously in most baseball corners.

What makes the Expos different from previous relocation candidates, who used the threat of a move as leverage to pry public funds to build new ballparks? The Expos' efforts to do so are failing miserably.

Canada's national government and Quebec's provincial government recently informed the Expos that there would be no public money for a ballpark. Tax breaks have been discussed. So has the donation of a $15 million tract of land on which the ballpark could be built. But neither has been promised. The Expos are at least $150 million short of the $250 million needed to build a stadium.

In Montreal, mayoral candidates are said to be warming to the idea of tax relief for the Expos, but that, too, must wait until after November elections. Politicians who have asked Claude Brochu, the Expos' managing partner, to put off a decision yet again have been met with the challenge to cover the losses the club will incur by remaining in Olympic Stadium for another year without the promise of a new park on the horizon.

"To me, waiting and waiting for them is just too easy," Brochu said. "If people want to step up, they will step up [by the end of the month]. What I don't want is to end up like the Twins, postponing and then ending up with nothing. So there has to be a deadline, a real one. If you dig a hole by enforcing that, you dig a hole."

If the Expos are to move immediately, it almost certainly will be to Northern Virginia, ownership sources said. Don Beaver, a minority shareholder in the Pirates group who recently tried to move the Twins to North Carolina, attended last week's meetings. But his group hasn't secured stadium financing in Charlotte yet — and might not. He said he did not discuss the matter with Brochu.

Northern Virginia's beltway rival, the D.C. Sports Commission, has come forth with one potential ownership group, led by developer Douglas Jemal, but it has extensive work to do before it can guarantee funding for a new stadium.

"If it happens very quickly, we're going to lose," said Paul M. Wolff, head of the commission and a partner in the prestigious law firm of Williams & Connolly. "We can be prepared to have major league baseball in Washington in the year 2000. If he wants to move for the '99 season, I don't know if we can move that fast."

Virginia's group is more optimistic. Like the district group, it says it could refurbish RFK Stadium, which is located in the District of Columbia, sufficiently to house the Expos next season. But, also like the district, its long-range stadium plan still is written in pencil.

Funding may not be a problem, but site selection could be. The location that is said to be an internal favorite, one in Arlington across the river from D.C. and its monuments, could yield the most opposition from residents.

As for opposition from Angelos, both groups are expecting it.

"This market is too important to let one person keep baseball from it," said Gabe Paul Jr., executive director of the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority. "When you look at the good of baseball, it cries out for having a team in this area.

"Our market would go from the district south. He'll still do fine. He has a stadium that's sized right. I understand Peter Angelos' concern. But at the end of the day, what's good for baseball?"

"You want to put a team in Virginia? Put it in Richmond, the capital of Virginia," Angelos said. "It's 140 miles from Baltimore. That'd be fine."

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