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Selig Gets Washington's Attention for Relocation

The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

January 20, 2002|THOMAS BOSWELL | THE WASHINGTON POST

Bud Selig certainly got Washington's attention this week.

It's amazing how your tune changes when the heat gets high enough.

''There's no doubt in my mind that relocation is coming,'' the baseball commissioner said Thursday.

Of Washington, he said, ''given the demographics of the area and all the people who want it, they are the prime candidate.''

As they say in diplomacy, that is a policy shift. If local fans want to get enthusiastic, it's somewhat justified. When Selig speaks about franchise movements, it's supposed to carry a great deal of weight. That's the one area in baseball that's always been at the center of a commissioner's influence.

However, Selig's word has seldom been a particularly valuable bond. His statement Thursday, while provocative, hardly constitutes a promise. The ''prime candidate'' doesn't always win.

Also, Selig, and baseball, are clearly reacting to the intense criticism they've received lately. The game's antitrust exemption is being scrutinized by Congress. Almost daily, Selig seems to get caught in some new conflict-of-interest imbroglio.

All of a sudden, keeping Peter Angelos happy doesn't seem so important. Indemnifying the Orioles may be the least of Selig's problems.

So, what's in the cards for Washington? According to highly placed management sources, there are two scenarios in which the Washington area ends up with a team.

If everything turns out exactly as Selig and his owners prefer, a team would relocate to Washington for the 2003 season. That team would almost certainly be the Florida Marlins.

Here's how it comes down.

''There's a big picture here. All these things are tied together in a meaningful way,'' Selig said this week.

Selig's ''big picture'' plan has one fundamental tenet. All of baseball's current owners--the guys who pay him his $3 million salary--get to feed at the trough before anyone else.

Any new players--such as the potential ownership groups in Washington and Northern Virginia--only get to join the monopolistic lodge if all else fails.

John Henry, a lodge member in good standing, was unhappy as the Marlins owner. Taxpayers wouldn't build him a new stadium.

So, baseball put together a Good-Old-Boys group, with Henry at its head, to buy the Red Sox.

That deal went through on Wednesday for $660 million. Sounds like a lot. It's not. A group headed by Miles Prentice offered $755 million and one led by Cablevision chairman Charles Dolan bid $750 million.

At the last minute, with the Massachusetts attorney general threatening to hold up the deal, the Henry group coughed up an

extra $40 million for the Yawkey Trust charities. Even so, charity will receive $70 million less from the Henry group than it would have from Dolan. Welcome to Bud's World. The attorney general said he took the deal to ''avoid two years in court.''

Now comes the next part of the puzzle. Montreal Expos owner Jeffrey Loria will buy the Marlins from Henry. That deal is as good as done and should be completed within days. The assumption inside baseball is that Loria will try, as Henry did, to get a publicly financed stadium in Miami. When he fails, he'll say he ''tried everything.''

Then, after the '02 season, Loria will move the team to Washington.

Studying baseball is like Kremlinology. You have to connect the data points. It sure seems as if somebody has promised the D.C. market to Loria. He's clearly overpaying Henry for the Marlins ($158 million). The franchise might be worth $100 million on the open market. And baseball is overpaying Loria for the Montreal franchise (about $120 million). But the game isn't overpaying him by $30 million. So, how is Loria going to make up that gap?

By getting Washington.

A far fairer method of bringing the Marlins to Washington would be an auction. (Not that the Red Sox example gives much confidence in the high bid actually winning.) The price could be $350 million. Out of that windfall, Loria could be made whole, Angelos could be indemnified and baseball would still have a huge chunk of change left for the owners to divide among themselves.

How will it actually work out? Loria is actively disliked by many owners. He was too brazen in demolishing the Expos for the obvious purpose of skipping town. There's even a school of thought that Loria is the pigeon in this poker game. He thinks he's going to get Washington. That's why he's going along with this double swap of teams. But in the end game, he gets the shaft.

If enough people scream bloody murder about him getting the Washington market, then Bud will probably drop him like a hot potato. So, who wants to yell first?

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