Expos' move encounters roadblock

Posted: Wednesday, December 15, 2004

WASHINGTON - Major league baseball's return to Washington might be for one year only.

The District of Columbia Council voted Tuesday night to require private financing for at least half the cost of a new ballpark for the Expos, a move that could cause the commissioner's office to reopen the search for a long-term home for the franchise.

Capping an 11 1/2-hour session filled with contentious debate, the council voted 7-6 to approve legislation to finance construction of a ballpark.

But the bill contained the amendment on private financing, a provision not contained in the September agreement between the Expos and Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams.

''We will review the amendments and the legislation as passed and have a response tomorrow,'' said Bob DuPuy, baseball's chief operating officer.

If the law stands, baseball's likely response would be to have the team play the 2005 season at Washington's RFK Stadium, where it would be known as the Nationals, while baseball's search committee resumes negotiations with cities that desire the team.

The Montreal Expos became the first major league team outside the United States when they started play in 1969, but attendance at Olympic Stadium slumped over the past decade and the franchise was bought by the other 29 teams before the 2002 season. In 2003 and 2004, some of the team's home games were moved to Puerto Rico to raise revenue.

From the start, baseball owners insisted a publicly financed stadium for the team be a component of any move.

Council Chair Linda Cropp offered the private-financing provision, saying it would be crucial for her support. She was considered the swing vote on the 13-member council.

Cropp said she was not satisfied with concessions offered by baseball that would have made the deal more financially palatable for the city. When the council gave its initial approval to the law on Nov. 30, it called for the city to issue $531 million in bonds to finance the plan.

''I have not seen the movement from Major League Baseball that I would have liked in the past two weeks,'' Cropp said. ''My dream of dreams is that we will get enough private financing that the costs of building the stadium will be eliminated.''

Jack Evans, baseball's most passionate advocate on the council, said the provision could be a deal breaker.

''This gives baseball an out,'' he said. ''Changing the agreement will then negate the agreement, and then Major League Baseball will go somewhere else.''

The council had until Dec. 31 to pass a stadium financing plan as part of the relocation deal Williams signed in September. Baseball owners approved the Expos' move Dec. 2. on the condition that financing be put in place consistent with the deal, and that arrangements to prepare RFK Stadium for use in 2005 satisfied baseball commissioner Bud Selig.

Williams left the council chambers after Cropp's amendment passed, and police blocked the door so reporters couldn't follow him. When they were able to get to his office, the mayor could not be found.

The measure allows the city to sell bonds to pay for a 41,000-seat ballpark about one mile south of the U.S. Capitol along the Anacostia River. The baseball relocation agreement estimates it will cost $435 million to build a new stadium and refurbish RFK Stadium as a temporary home for the team. Opponents claim the project will total more than $600 million.

Any costs other than the private financing would be covered by a gross receipts tax on the city's largest businesses, taxes on tickets, concessions and parking and rent from the team's owners.

Washington has been without a major league team since the expansion Senators moved to Texas following the 1971 season. The Expos' move would be the first major league franchise relocation since then.

The original Senators played in Washington from 1901-60 before moving to Minnesota to become the Twins. The expansion Senators called Washington home from 1961-71 before moving to Texas and becoming the Rangers.

Washington's new team would start play April 4 at Philadelphia and play its home opener April 14 against Arizona at RFK Stadium.

Las Vegas; Monterrey, Mexico; Norfolk, Va.; Northern Virginia; Portland, Ore.; and San Juan, Puerto Rico, also tried to land the Expos.

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Associated Press Writer Brett Zongker contributed to this story



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