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August 24, 2004

Whither Youppi?

The Expo-tortion Racket Is More Difficult Than It Looks

by Neil deMause

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It is all but inevitable now: the Expos will be sold and moved. This will be their final season in Montreal.

That was Montreal Gazette baseball columnist Jack Todd, glumly assessing his hometown team's prospects, back in March...of 1999. Those were the days when "contraction" was only a gleam in Jerry McMorris' eye, when the Expos had local ownership--not a cabal of their 29 rivals--and when all of Quebec was still abuzz about which of those two kids, Peter Bergeron or Milton Bradley, would be Montreal's center fielder of the future.

It's going to be a close call, but Montreal's tenure could go on. MLB's just-completed owners' confab in Philadelphia may have succeeded in locking up Bud Selig as commissioner until he gets to be Julio Franco's age. But the long-awaited action on the Expos situation amounted to Bud's henchman Bob DuPuy informing suitor cities that he was still awaiting a bigger box of candy before selecting a winner. Following the earlier blow-off of a deadline at the All-Star break--and a still-earlier deadline of last year's All-Star break--baseball officials are now murmuring that a decision will be reached "by the end of the season"; BP readers and Expos fans used to these delays will be forgiven for wondering which season they mean.

This is not, in case you're wondering, the historically preferred method for absconding with a team for greener pastures elsewhere. Those with long memories--or a copy of the 1972 Sporting News Baseball Guide, which provides a detailed blow-by-blow account--will recall that the last big-league ballclub to pull up stakes managed the feat in a mere matter of weeks. On June 30, 1971, Washington Senators owner Bob Short emerged from a top-secret owners' meeting and intoned, "I didn't buy the club to move it. But I don't relish the business and artistic losses I'm taking." (Short's reputed red ink, as later revealed by researchers including a young Roger Noll, turned out to be paper losses, juiced by the usual accounting trickeries; lord only knows what "artistic" losses were supposed to be.) By Sept. 21 of that year, American League owners had voted 10-2 to rechristen the Senators as the Texas Rangers. One of the two dissenters, interestingly, was the Baltimore Orioles--whose owner, Jerry Hoffberger, was apparently fearful that the Senators' departure would open the door for a more popular National League team to move in.

Thirty-two years later, Hoffberger is still waiting. (OK, actually not so much.) While it's tempting to chalk up the neverending Expos' mess to MLB bumbling--for anyone who's read John Helyar's history of baseball ownership, Lords of the Realm, it's tempting to chalk just about anything up to incompetent management--there are good reasons why the poutine still flows at Olympic Stadium.

Orioles owner Peter Angelos has gotten a lot of flak for playing the obstructionist here, and it's certainly not like he hasn't tried. Angelos has claimed publicly that a team in D.C. would cost the Orioles $40 million a year in lost revenue--a preposterous figure, given that the O's annual ticket sales and local media revenue combined amount to barely $80 million total. It's also a figure that would be impossible to indemnify Angelos for, since it would conservatively require a lump-sum payment of more than $400 million, or more than the Expos are expected to fetch in the first place.

There's been a ton of talk about "territorial rights" in the Expos mess, but as it turns out, they actually don't matter much. First off, the Orioles' official MLB territorial rights are limited to selected Maryland counties (Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Howard, Carroll and Harford, for those interested), and so wouldn't apply to a relocation to D.C. or Virginia. Secondly, it takes a three-quarters vote of owners to approve a franchise move--and an identical three-quarters vote to rescind a team's territorial rights. (If you're now wondering what good territorial rights are, join the club.) Angelos may be the world's only $30,000-an-hour lawyer, but even he will have a hard time collecting damages if MLB votes to dump the Expos on his doorstep. "Angelos is not an obstacle," sports economist Andrew Zimbalist said last week. "If I'm wrong about that, Selig is either more compromised or more deficient intellectually than I thought."

No, Selig's pickle resides elsewhere, and will even if Angelos calls him up tomorrow to accept a crisp Ben Franklin and a box of Larry Parrish matryoshkas as compensation. With all the debates about the allures of the various contenders for the Expos' affections (Las Vegas is the fastest-growing city in a desert! Monterrey would have a whole country to itself!), it's easy to lose track of the fact that a new stadium, not a new city, is what the Expos Grand Tour has been all about from the start. If MLB were just looking for a major media market with a long baseball history and a major league-ready stadium, after all, the Expos could stay put right where they are. One of my favorite myth-busting baseball factoids is that the Expos outdrew the Mets every year from 1994 to 1996--and now that Canadians are no longer spending Monopoly money, a competitive team in Quebec might actually generate some real revenue.

Since this whole relocation shuffle began, however, baseball officials have made clear that the first priority was lining up stadium funding. Owners, season-ticket pledges--all that could come later, once there was assurance that every penny from the sale of the Expos would be going to line the pockets of the Twenty-Nine, not to pay off stadium bonds.

Twenty months later, what's been the result? Washington Mayor Anthony Williams upped his bid from $300 million to $340 million. Virginia, after being rebuffed by various D.C. suburbs, finally settled on a site out near Dulles Airport that has as its main asset that it is a million miles from anywhere, so unlikely to rile up any locals. Portland has dithered with a series of financing schemes that rely heavily on the category "and other revenues." Norfolk sold a bunch of season-ticket plans to boost their credibility, only to have its main ballpark proponents turn out to have invented much of their resumes. Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman elbowed his city into the picture by proposing to "fully fund a magnificent new retractable stadium" (sic), then backtracked and mumbled something about unspecified casinos paying the tab.

It all amounts to a lot of reshuffling of financial deck chairs, but one thing is missing: legislation. Baseball boosters in both D.C. and Virginia have promised that stadium-finance bills would follow soon after a team is awarded, but that's a risky proposition: D.C. hasn't even picked a site yet (when council finance chair Jack Evans jumped the gun and tried to anoint a site in Southeast D.C. as the Expos' new home in May, he was pounced on by his colleagues and swiftly withdrew the proposal) nor approved any of the new taxes that would fund the plan, while Virginia House Speaker William Howell has vowed rough going in the state legislature for any stadium bonds. Sure, these could only be temporary delays. But as George Steinbrenner or Carl Pohlad can tell you, stadium finance debates move on a geological time scale, which could mean an awful lot of RFK Stadium in MLB's future.

And therein lies Selig's dilemma. Pick a winner too soon, and he loses his only leverage for extorting stadium cash out of the local electeds. Wait too long, and he risks another year of embarrassing Expos limbo (in the latest penny-pinching fiasco, Nick Johnson recently complained that his batting woes have been compounded by the Twenty-Nine's unwillingness to pay for game film of opposing pitchers); another pile of losses; and the likely demise of Virginia's stadium authority, which is set to expire at the end of 2004 if no stadium deal is in place. If playing hardball is tough for Selig now, imagine how it'll be with only D.C. and Las Vegas to play against each other.

If Selig hits the jackpot, however, not only does he get a new stadium to pour more money into MLB's shared pot, but he's jump-started baseball fever in other cities like Portland and Vegas that were previously dismissed as too bush league to be seriously considered for membership in the MLB club. That, in turn, would give baseball owners something they haven't had since Tampa Bay landed the Devil Rays in 1998: a viable threat to relocate to. The Indians, White Sox, Giants, Mariners, Rangers and Orioles all now play in new stadiums that were built, in part, because of the Tampa Bay threat.

So, like Sonny Wortzik with a bank full of hostages, Selig keeps the Expos in his pocket, a valuable commodity with no obvious way to cash it in. Unless somebody takes a bullet to the head, don't be surprised if this drags on a lot longer before somebody blinks.

Neil deMause is co-author of the book Field of Schemes, and runs the fieldofschemes.com Web site. He lives in Brooklyn with his partner Mindy, their son Jordan, and a circa-1986 Yankee Stadium bleacher seat. Neil can be reached at neil@demause.net.

Neil deMause is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Neil's other articles. You can contact Neil by clicking here

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