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Expos Might Be a Capital Gain

January 18, 2002|BILL SHAIKIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHOENIX — Commissioner Bud Selig all but dangled the Montreal Expos in front of the baseball-starved populace of Washington D.C. on Thursday, saying that "relocation is coming in the near future" and that the nation's capital is "the prime candidate" to land a team that moves.

Selig said no team would move this year, virtually assuring the Expos of playing a farewell season in Montreal under the control of major league owners.

The designated hitter did not exist when the Washington Senators moved to Texas in 1971, and no major league team has moved since then. Baseball's owners have long prided themselves on franchise stability, but they now insist the economic conditions of the sport are so grave they can only be remedied by removing teams from markets that fail to generate sufficient revenue.

"The commissioner has appeared more receptive to relocation than he has ever been," said Bob DuPuy, baseball's executive vice president.

Owners Wednesday approved the sale of the Boston Red Sox to a group led by Florida Marlin owner John Henry, expected to be followed within two weeks by the sale of the Marlins to Montreal owner Jeffrey Loria. With the owners' plan to eliminate two teams all but dead for this year and no buyers interested in the Expos, that would leave Selig's office to operate the team in 2002.

"I'd be shocked if it went on more than one year," DuPuy said.

The operational details of a league-controlled franchise remain unresolved. The Loria sale was not placed on the agenda Wednesday, one executive said, in part because owners have not yet been told how much it will cost to run the Expos in addition to the $120 million proposed to buy back the franchise from Loria.

DuPuy said Selig would appoint an "independent operator" to run the team on "a budget within the parameters of where the Expos' budget was." The players' union wants to discuss how, and how competitively, the team would be run, union chief Donald Fehr said.

The Expos might attract little interest in Montreal during a lame-duck season, but their presence would remind other low-revenue markets that their franchises remain endangered, particularly in the absence of new ballparks.

Owners could revive their plan to eliminate teams next fall, pairing the Expos with the Oakland Athletics, Tampa Bay Devil Rays or Minnesota Twins and moving the Marlins to Washington if Loria fails to secure a new stadium in Florida. Owners also could turn a profit on their one-year operation of the Expos by selling them to a D.C. group, for perhaps double or triple the price paid to buy out Loria.

The discussion of potential franchise moves overshadowed Fehr's appearance at the owners' meetings. In what Fehr called a "rather radical departure from the past," Selig invited Fehr to make an unprecedented visit to address owners.

Fehr, leading a six-man delegation that included players Rich Aurilia, Tony Clark and Mark Loretta, spoke about union positions on such issues as competitive imbalance and revenue disparities.

"This wasn't about negotiating," Atlanta Brave President Stan Kasten said. "This was about simply talking to each other."

While Selig repeated his promise not to lock players out of spring training, and while Fehr termed a strike "a last resort" that has not been considered, neither side minimized the difficulties inherent in negotiating a collective bargaining agreement to replace the one that expired in November. Talks are scheduled to resume next week.

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