National Attention: The Expos’ 35-Year Journey to Washington D.C. (Part 2)by Brian Borawski
January 07, 2005
When we signed off last time, Jeffrey Loria had sold the Montreal Expos to Major League Baseball -- i.e. the other 29 owners -- for $120 million. Most of that went into Loria’s pocket because his stake in the Expos slowly inched its way up to 93%. Loria then used the money to buy the Florida Marlins from John Henry, who bought the Boston Red Sox a year later. While all this was going on, they both also bought an indirect stake in the Montreal Expos, since ownership of that team became shared by the 29 remaining owners.
If this sounds like some weird vicious circle (or would this be a paradox?), the story gets better. The Expos were destined to move, but in the meantime the other owners of the Expos -- the consortium of Quebec business owners -- filed racketeering charges under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. They claimed that, among others, Loria and Bud Selig conspired to relocate, or completely eliminate, the Expos. It was hard to imagine that while all this was going on, baseball was being played.
2002 – Contenders or Pretenders?
If there was turmoil in the front office, the players on the field choose to ignore it as best they could. The Expos started the 2002 season by going 16-10 in the month of April, which was good for a first place tie with the New York Mets. They tapered off in May, and were stuck exactly at .500 with a 27-27 record at the end of the month, two and a half games back of first place Atlanta. The Braves caught fire in June and early July, and by the All-Star break the Expos were in second place, but the Braves had a nine-and-a-half-game cushion. Despite making a trade deadline deal for Bartolo Colon, the Expos finished the season at 83-79. They were second in the National League East, but were a distant 19 games behind the Braves. They finished 12 games behind the San Francisco Giants, who took the NL Wild Card.
In December, the Players Association approved the Expos playing 22 of their 81 home games in Puerto Rico in 2003. Not only was the specter of relocation following the team, but the Expos’ fans in their home city lost over one quarter of their home appearances. It was one of the moves that would enrich the other 29 owners while turning the Expos into a traveling side show.
Selig also threw out a soft deadline for a final decision on the Expos. He assured the fans that a decision would be made by the 2003 All Star Game. In the meantime, the suitors started lining up.
The proposed site of a new stadium, located just outside of Dulles International Airport, was quite possibly the runner up in the Expos sweepstakes. After Arlington County shot down the chance of a stadium that would have overlooked some of Washington, D.C.’s most historic monuments, the Diamond Lake development became the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authorities’ second choice. In all, the mixed use site would cost an estimated $442 million, but because of a large amount of private sector financing, only $360 million of public funding was required. One of the pros of this site was its proximity to a large media market, Washington D.C. Another was the fact that Baltimore and Peter Angelos were two hours away (more on why this was significant shortly).
Norfolk, VA was also a viable relocation site for the Expos. The Norfolk Baseball Company proposed a plan that would have the Expos play their home games at Harbor Park, the current home of the New York Mets’ Triple-A affiliate, the Norfolk Tides. The proposed site was in a parking lot next to the stadium, and while the Expos played their home games at an expanded Harbor Park, the new stadium would be built next door. Once the new stadium was built, Harbor Park would then be demolished. The total projected cost of the project was $306 million, with the bulk of the financing coming from municipal tax exempt bonds.
With a grand total of six possible sites in the city of Portland, the Oregon Stadium Campaign provided Major League Baseball with the most flexibility. With an estimated cost of $350 million for a big league ballpark, the financing plan consisted mostly from state income tax revenues, fees on local businesses, and a 10% fee on ticket sales. While the new stadium was being constructed, the interim site would have been PGE Park, home of the San Diego Padres’ Triple-A affiliate, the Portland Beavers.
Las Vegas, NV
Vegas lobbied hard to bring the Expos to their city. One major snag was a lack of a local place to play while a stadium was built (Monterrey, Mexico and San Antonio, TX were two rumored interim locations). This was also the only deal that relied heavily on private financing, with $400 million of the $420 million total cost pegged as coming from private investors.
I don’t think Monterrey was ever a viable candidate, but it was talked up heavily by the league. The plan called for an expansion of Estadio Monterrey, the home of the Monterrey Sultans, a Triple-A Mexican League team.
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Similar to Monterrey, Hiram Bithorn Stadium was never a very viable option, despite the fact that the Expos played 22 games there in 2003 and 2004. A definitive plan was never put forward by the city despite the fact that MLB Chief Operating Officer Bob DuPuy said they were a contender.
Last but not least, the Washington plan used RFK Stadium as their interim facility. The permanent facility that the city had planned was located just off the Anacostia River. At an initial project cost of up to $383 million, the key to bringing baseball to D.C. was the fact that Mayor Anthony Williams was promising a completely public funded stadium deal, which was the preference of Selig. A publicly funded stadium meant less uncertainty and a larger sales price for the team.
2003 – Los Expos
Despite not knowing where they’d end up at the end of the season, the 2003 Expos got off to a hot start, even though their first 10 “home” games were played in Puerto Rico. By the end of April, they stood at 17-10, tied with the Atlanta Braves for first place. The high point of the season was on May 25, when they were 32-18, and a mere two games behind the Braves. Unfortunately, it went downhill from there. They lost eight of their next nine games, and although they seemed to hang on at times, the Expos never really got back into the race. Add in the fact that management -- i.e. Selig -- wouldn’t allow them to add payroll to improve the team at the All-Star break, and they were pretty much doomed despite the good start.
The Expos finished the season with an 83-79 record, and were 18 games behind the Braves. They increased their attendance to just over a million fans, but this was due in large part to the bump they received in Puerto Rico. The 2003 All-Star game came and went (but "this time, it mattered!"), and despite the fact that most of the Expos' suitors showed up to try to sell their cities to Selig, a decision wasn’t made. Nor was a decision made at the end of the season. The only thing that was decided was that the Expos would play another 22 games in Puerto Rico in 2004.
2004 – The Last Hurrah
Life without Vladimir Guerrero and Javier Vazquez was very difficult for the Expos in their final season in Montreal. The team got off to a horrible start and by April 19 they stood 2-11. By the end of the month, they were 5-19. And just like that, the season was basically over. The All-Star game came and went once again without a decision from Selig on where the Expos would play next year. By this time, many of the suitors had basically given up and only the Washington D.C. contingent, along with their Virginia brethren, showed up to court Selig and company at the game. Baseball backers in Portland, OR and Las Vegas, NV both decided to stay home. Meanwhile, baseball fans in Montreal saw their final team post a paltry 31-56 record at the break
Things really began to heat up on July 22. Representatives from Major League Baseball met with the player representative’s of the Expos, notifying them that the team wouldn’t play in Montreal next year, and that the two leading candidates for the move were Washington D.C. or Northern Virginia. Monterrey, Mexico, and San Juan, Puerto Rico were completely shut out, while Las Vegas and Norfolk were both given some hope.
By August, the Expos were playing marginally better, and on August 11, in the midst of a season-best seven-game winning streak, Northern Virginia’s chance at reeling in the Expos appeared to be in jeopardy. The “moral obligation” bonds that would be used to build the team’s new stadium required the approval of the state legislature, and it appeared some politicians weren’t on board. They still had some time to rectify the situation, because on August 18th, the owners once again chose not to resolve the issue at their meeting.
In mid-September, Selig and company had one last round of meetings with both the Washington D.C. and Northern Virginia contingents, but it looked more and more like Northern Virginia (Dulles) would have a problem getting their bond proposal past the state legislature. With a move imminent, the former Expos’ owners appealed to a federal judge that any move should blocked. This was on the heels of the league announcing to the court that they would definitely be moving the team in the immediate future.
After meeting the week before, the league announced on September 29, 2004 that the Expos would move to Washington D.C. for the 2005 season, and would play at RFK Stadium. Mayor Anthony Williams signed “the deal” stating he’d push through a publicly financed plan to build a new stadium by the end of 2004. The Expos played their final home game that night.
In mid-November, arbitrators ruled against the Expos’ consortium in their RICO case, clearing the way for the move to D.C. After nearly two years, the Expos saga seemed to be reaching its conclusion. The team’s relocation to a major television market seemed desirable to the owners, and the city seemed extremely willing to bend over backwards to build them a stadium. All the owners seemed happy, but one.
Baltimore Orioles’ owner Peter Angelos opposed any move to either Washington D.C. or Northern Virginia. With the two cities less then 50 miles from one another, Angelos wanted assurances that he wouldn’t be put out by the move. Terms of the deal being negotiated with the league included a guaranteed sales price if Angelos decided to sell the team, along with the league compensating him for any shortfall in revenues after the move took place. His primary argument wasn’t that the fans would flock to D.C. (although he did try this), it was the fact that Washington D.C. residents watched Orioles game on cable television, and that any team in that area would drive down the amount of money he earned from his television contracts. These negotiations are still going strong, and when the owners voted to approve the Expos move to D.C. on December 3, Angelos was the lone dissenter. Now all D.C. had to do was give Selig and company their stadium.
Baseball fans in Washington D.C. had one major thorn in their side. Her name is Linda Cropp, the Washington D.C. city council chairwoman. Supposedly looking out for her constituents, Cropp appeared more of an annoyance than a road block to the stadium bill that would pave the way for baseball in the Washington area. After taking the issue off the table in November, the city council finally put it on their slate for their December 14th meeting.
Everything seemed to be running smoothly when Cropp added a late night (literally) amendment requiring the city to seek $142 million in private funding for the stadium. Knowing she had the deciding vote, she forced through the amendment knowing she could kill the entire deal. In the end, the council approved the stadium plan, but with the private funding amendment. Selig and DuPuy didn’t view the change of plans kindly. All business and promotional activities were halted, and the unveiling of the new Nationals uniform was delayed, indefinitely. Executives in Virginia and Las Vegas again began to salivate at the chance to reel in the team to their respective cities.
But the controversy was short lived. After only a week, Cropp agreed to pull out the mandatory private financing amendment. In exchange, the cap on the cost of the stadium was pushed lower, and it was agreed that private financing would be sought, but not necessarily required. On December 29, Williams signed the financing package into law. In all, the city can issue $535 million in bonds to finance the stadium. There still could be some potential roadblocks along the way, including three pro-baseball councilmen being voted off the council and Angelos. In the meantime, baseball has returned to Washington.
References and Resources
I wanted to apologize for the technical error I made in part one. In the first column, I stated Rick Monday knocked the Expos out of the 1981 playoffs with a walk-off homerun, when it was actually just a tie-breaking homerun in the top of the ninth.
The information used to compile this column can be found at SABR’s Business of Baseball Committee website (http://www.businessofbaseball.com)
Brian Borawski is a member of SABR's Business of Baseball Committee and writes about the Detroit Tigers at his own website, TigerBlog. He welcomes comments, questions and suggestions via e-mail.