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THE NATION | DISPATCH FROM NORFOLK, VA.

Stealing the Montreal Expos Home

An underdog wants to cap its high-end revival by luring big-time baseball to town. It's going to bat against bigger contenders.

July 03, 2004|David Lamb | Times Staff Writer

NORFOLK, Va. — Long known as a place of sea dogs, tug boats and tough bars, this old port city today basks in a renaissance of high-end development and of buildings restored.

Now Norfolk and the 15 surrounding cities and counties known collectively as Hampton Roads are looking for a crown jewel to cap the revival.

Their goal is to snatch the Montreal Expos right out from under the noses of competitors in northern Virginia; Washington, D.C.; Las Vegas; San Antonio; Portland, Ore.; and Monterrey, Mexico.

Just to make sure everyone knows Norfolk is serious, the city has painted its manhole covers to resemble baseballs. Billboard and TV spots trumpet the region's quest for big-league status and posters in store windows declare, "We believe. Get in the game."

Four interns at the Norfolk Baseball Co. work a bank of phones, drumming up business for a team that doesn't exist. So far, 23 companies have put down refundable deposits for luxury skyboxes and 5,700 fans have signed up for season tickets.

Montreal's failing franchise is owned by the 29 major league teams, which plan to announce its sale (for about $200 million) and relocation this summer.

Norfolk, viewed by some as a long-shot upstart, got into the game a year ago. But it is intent on making a convincing case why the Expos would prosper here.

Paul Fraim, who spearheaded Norfolk's revival during 18 years as city councilman and now as mayor, says his city may be coming from behind, but is well placed to be the new home of the Expos.

Could Norfolk attract 20,000 fans on a steamy Tuesday night in August against a noncontending team? No problem, Fraim says.

Hampton Roads, named for a body of water, not a highway, is an economically robust area with a population of nearly 2 million, and 3 million within a 100-mile radius.

It sits on a mid-Atlantic artery where minor league baseball thrives, but in the 669 road miles between Atlanta and Baltimore no major league team has sunk roots.

The force behind Norfolk's courtship of the Expos is two 26-year-old former investment bankers.

One, William Somerindyke Jr., is a lifelong fan who still pitches on a semi-pro team. The other, Jason Osborne, has started seven companies but knows so little about baseball he thinks the infield fly rule has something to do with zippers.

In their 11th-hour effort to snare the Expos, they formed the Norfolk Baseball Co. and put together a group of investors (as yet not publicly identified).

The drive has Norfolk abuzz with baseball and is pulling together a region where a grab bag of counties and cities have long-standing rivalries.

In one TV spot, five local mayors who normally wouldn't agree on whether the sun rises in the east are seen playing catch and urging viewers to get on the team.

Over lunch at an Irish pub on Granby Street -- one of the upscale restaurants that stand where derelict bars once teetered -- Somerindyke admitted it had taken some salesmanship to get baseball to take Norfolk seriously.

In fact, when Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig dispatched a delegation to the city in January, Somerindyke feared its mission was to say, "Good luck next time."

"But we blew them away," Somerindyke said.

Norfolk had a financial plan in place for a $300-million, 38,000-seat downtown stadium, unanimous resolutions from all 16 Hampton Roads political entities supporting the quest for a team and a ton of economic data promoting the region as a growing high-tech, educational and commercial hub. It boasts the world's largest naval base and one of the nation's largest cargo ports and, because of nearby Virginia Beach, is a major tourist destination.

Financing for the stadium, on empty city-owned waterfront property, would come in part from a 1-cent city tax levied on lodging and meals. And Virginia taxes on tickets, concessions and player payrolls would be dedicated to paying off the stadium debt. The Legislature passed the stadium tax in 1997 to help northern Virginia attract a team, but did not include language saying the funds couldn't be used for the same purpose by another locale.

James Eason, president of Hampton Roads Partnership, a group developing strategic plans for the region's growth, said acquiring the Expos could be the "tipping point" for a city "poised for greatness."

It would help foster a "sense of regional citizenship" that generates cooperation among communities and help overcome the complacency that decades of dependence on the military bred in Norfolk, he said.

"Aren't we tired of hearing we can't do something because we are a blue-collar or a Navy town or whatever?" he asked business leaders recently. "Success in this endeavor could very well begin to impact the negativity which seems to be always lurking and keeps us from reaching our potential."

But would baseball's cautious, conservative owners choose a home for the Expos that isn't yet on the national radar as a great city? One that has fewer people and a smaller per capita income than the northern Virginia suburbs around Washington? Would traffic-flow problems created by the bridges and tunnels in Hampton Roads be a consideration?

Would the success of Norfolk's minor league team, the Tides (a New York Mets AAA affiliate), be considered a positive because it draws half a million fans year after year? Or a negative because few games at the 14,000-seat Harbor Park sell out?

"All I can tell," said Baxter Simmons, who recently opened a steak house on Granby Street, "is that if we get the Expos, Norfolk would go over the top."

So over the top, said Mayor Fraim, that it would do nothing less than bury "the notion we're still a blue-collar seaport city -- and give Virginia and North Carolina a regional symbol to rally around."

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