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Expos’ Move to D.C. on Verge of Collapse
NEW YORK – Washington’s new baseball team shut down business and promotional operations indefinitely Wednesday as its move to the nation’s capital teetered on the brink of collapse.
The decision by major league baseball followed the District of Columbia Council’s decision Tuesday night to require private financing for at least half the cost of building a new stadium. The September agreement to move the Montreal Expos to Washington called for a ballpark fully financed by government money.
“Yes, I think baseball is now in jeopardy,” Mayor Anthony A. Williams said.
A previously scheduled news conference to unveil new uniforms was called off and fans who bought tickets to watch the renamed Nationals next season at RFK Stadium can get refunds, said Bob DuPuy, baseball’s chief operating officer.
Baseball will not resume talks with other cities until after Dec. 31, the deadline in the agreement for Washington to put a ballpark financing law in place.
“In the meantime, the club’s baseball operations will proceed, but its business and promotional activities will cease until further notice,” DuPuy said.
He did not address where the team would play its 2005 home schedule if the deal with Washington falls through. It remains unclear whether baseball would move the franchise to RFK Stadium on a temporary basis, remain at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium or go to another city.
Williams had signed the deal nearly three months ago, and publicly celebrated the return of major league baseball to Washington, which hasn’t had a team since 1971.
“We had a deal. I believe the deal was broken, and the dream of 33 years is now once again close to dying. I would say close,” Williams said at a news conference Wednesday.
Council Chair Linda W. Cropp proposed the amendment, which was approved 10-3 after she threatened to withhold support from the overall package, which then passed In a 7-6 vote.
“I am not trying to kill the deal,” Cropp said. “I’m putting some teeth in it because I’m really disappointed with what I got from major league baseball.”
The September agreement estimated the cost of building the ballpark and refurbishing RFK Stadium at $435 million, but critics claimed it would cost far more. The proposal, as initially approved by the council on Nov. 30, called for Washington to issue up to $531 million in bonds to cover the cost.
“I am very confident that we are going to be able to work through this and that we will have baseball here,” said Councilman Jack Evans, who supported Williams on the original financing plan.
Bill Hall, chairman of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission’s baseball committee, said, “We intend to deal with MLB’s concerns and stadium cost issues in a way that keeps baseball in Washington, and do so over the next week or so.”
Some of the communities that had lost out in the bidding for the team prepared to resume their efforts to lure the franchise.
“I don’t think we’ve ever stopped,” Norfolk group head Will Somerindyke Jr. said. “We always wanted to keep this area an option. If the opportunity arises for the Expos again, we are going to be standing there along with everyone else.
“Whether we could get something done by next year, I think that’s a stretch,” he added. “It would be very, very tough.”
Somerindyke’s organization has returned the deposits it collected on nearly 10,000 season tickets and almost 100 luxury boxes during its drive to get the Expos. He didn’t think it would be difficult to get those deposits back.
Officials in Portland, Ore., were uncertain how to interpret the developments.
“We need to wait to see how Major League Baseball assesses this so we can respond,” said Drew Mahalic of the Oregon Sports Authority.
Northern Virginia’s group had hoped to build a ballpark near Dulles International Airport.
“We hope that the District of Columbia will be able to fulfill the terms of its agreement and succeed in bringing Major League Baseball back to this region,” Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority spokesman Brian Hannigan said.
Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman went to baseball’s winter meetings last weekend trying to attract attention to his efforts to lure a team. But he could not offer a firm stadium plan.
“It’s just a glint in my eye, at this point,” he said.
Washington has lost teams twice before: The original Senators became the Minnesota Twins after the 1960 season and the expansion Senators transformed into the Texas Rangers following the 1971 season.
“Here we are back where we were five years ago รณ the nation’s capital, the center of the world, a city of possibility, aspiration and ambition and opportunity, and a city that cannot do what it says it’s going to do,” Williams said. “I’m saddened that we can go so far in five years and step back so far in five minutes.”
The 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.