Expos to move to Washington

Thursday, September 30, 2004

WASHINGTON-- It was more pep rally than news conference, with the mayor and city officials wearing red Washington Senators caps, the ones with the curly "W" on the front.

"After 30 years of waiting and waiting and waiting," said Mayor Anthony Williams, adding dramatic pauses for emphasis, "and lots of hard work and more than a few prayers, there will be baseball in Washington in 2005!"

Baseball returned to the nation's capital for the first time in 33 years Wednesday, with an announcement from Major League Baseball that the Montreal Expos will move to Washington next season.

The announcement came one day before the anniversary of the Senators' final game. The team moved to Texas after the 1971 season, the last time a major league team moved.

"It's a day when the sun is setting in Montreal, but it's rising in Washington," Expos president Tony Tavares told a news conference in Montreal.

More than 30,000 fans attended the Expos' last game at Olympic Stadium -- about four times the normal number on a given night -- and at least one person was unhappy with the move. The game against the Florida Marlins was delayed 10 minutes after someone threw a golf ball that landed near second base and players were pulled off the field.

Relocation of the Expos is subject to certain contingencies, including a vote by team owners in November and passage of legislation by the Washington's City Council to build a ballpark on the Anacostia River waterfront, south of the Capitol.

"There has been tremendous growth in the Washington, D.C., area over the last 33 years, and we in Major League Baseball believe that baseball will be welcomed there and will be a great success," commissioner Bud Selig said.

The team will play for three seasons at RFK Stadium while a new ballpark is built. The first home game will be April 15 against the Arizona Diamondbacks, according to the draft 2005 schedule that has been circulated to major league teams. The team opens the season April 4 at Philadelphia.

Eager fans arrived early for the announcement at Washington's City Museum. A petition was circulated to name the team the "Washington Grays" in tribute to the Homestead Grays, a Negro League team that played in Washington in the 1930s and 1940s. Despite his cap, Williams said he doesn't want to recycle the Senators name for political reasons -- Washington doesn't have voting representation in the U.S. Senate.

Baseball has been looking for a new home for the Expos since the financially troubled team was bought by the other 29 major league owners in 2002.

Las Vegas; Norfolk, Va.; Monterrey, Mexico; Portland, Ore.; and Northern Virginia also made bids, but Washington clearly took the lead during negotiations over recent weeks, strengthened by its wealthy population base and a financial package that would build a new stadium primarily with taxpayers' money.

A crucial hurdle was cleared this week when baseball reached an understanding with Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who had previously objected to having a team move just 40 miles from his Camden Yards stadium.

"Our negotiations with major league baseball are continuing," Angelos said in a statement issued Wednesday night. "We have made substantial progress but have not yet reached an agreement. Our aim has been to protect and preserve the Orioles franchise and the economic benefits it has generated for Baltimore for the past 50 years. Equally important have been our efforts to protect Maryland's investment in Camden Yards."

Selig, in a conference call with reporters, declined to give specifics on the talks with Angelos.

"There is equity on all sides, and Peter has been treated fairly," Selig said.

Selig called the relocation an "arduous, very, very difficult" process.

"We don't want to hurt existing franchises," the commissioner said. "On the other hand, we want to go to the best place we can go to."

With the announcement made, the process of selling the Expos starts. A group that includes former Rangers partner Fred Malek has been seeking a Washington franchise for five years, but several other bidders are expected to show interest.

"The sooner we have a new owner, the better off we'll all be," said Selig, adding the new owner will decide on the team's name, uniforms and spring training site.

Hearings will begin soon on the city's $440 million package that would include the new ballpark and $13 million for refurbishment of RFK. The money will come from a new tax on the city's largest businesses, a tax on baseball-related income and lease payments by the team's new owners.

Anticipating critics from those who say city funds shouldn't be used for baseball, Williams went on the offensive to promote the team's economic benefits.

"It's the team owners, business owners, the stadium users who are paying for this -- and not one dime of a D.C. resident is covering this important investment in our city," he said.

Washington needed confirmation from baseball this week because the ballpark legislation has to be introduced in the City Council by Friday in order for it to be passed by Dec. 31, when terms expire for several pro-baseball council members.

Even now, some members of the council think the deal might not pass because it is perceived as too generous to baseball in a city that struggles to fund adequate schools and city services.

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