Baseball: So Long, Montreal. Hello, Washington?

D.C. looks likely if a deal can be cut with the Baltimore Orioles

After coaxing a labor agreement out of the tough-talking players union, what will Major League Baseball do for an encore? One impressive second act would be to solve the conundrum of the Montreal Expos.

Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig spent the past year plotting to eliminate the forlorn franchise. But the labor deal that players and owners struck on Aug. 30 bars MLB from euthanizing any teams until 2006.

Yet leaving the Expos in Montreal much beyond next season doesn't seem like a tenable proposition. With paltry support from advertisers and no local TV deal, revenues have been barely a trickle. As a result, the 29 MLB owners, who are covering the Expos' operating losses, are on the hook for nearly $500,000 each.

One likely scenario: The team will be moved to Washington/Northern Virginia, Charlotte, Las Vegas, or Portland, Ore. If Washington or Northern Virginia is chosen--and they are the front-runners--Baltimore owner Peter G. Angelos is expected to demand a tidy compensation. And there are hints that he would then sell the Orioles.

"The situation in Montreal isn't sustainable, not when they're averaging less than 10,000 fans a game," says Frederic V. Malek, a prominent Republican who heads a group bent on bringing baseball back to Washington. "That leads one to believe [MLB is] going to address relocation very soon." Soon, maybe, but not overnight. MLB has put off any decision until it gauges the seriousness of a lawsuit just filed by former minority owners of the Expos.

Washington hasn't seen big-league ball since the Senators departed 31 years ago for Arlington, Tex., but the Malek group has a strong rival in a Northern Virginia contender led by William L. Collins III, president and CEO of Metrocall Inc., an Alexandria telecom company. And in recent months, Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder and Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television, have also talked about joining the bidding for a Washington franchise.

The wild card in any relocation to the nation's capital is, of course, Baltimore attorney Angelos. Only 37 miles separate Camden Yards, the Orioles' downtown stadium, from Washington, and Angelos has spent most of the 10 years he has owned the club fending off the threat of new competition. The Orioles claim 25% of their fans hail from D.C. suburbs. "I don't believe a franchise--any franchise--should be confronted with competition 25 miles away," says Angelos.

But if Angelos--who may be forgetting there are two teams in Chicago, Los Angeles/Anaheim, New York, and San Francisco/Oakland--tries to block baseball in Washington, he'll need backing from his fellow owners. And until recently, he would have been hard-pressed to muster support from even one.

During the 1994 shutdown, Angelos, who started out representing union workers and then struck it rich in asbestos litigation, refused to go along with MLB's plan to use replacement players. That roiled his colleagues and, some argued, prolonged a stoppage that wiped out the World Series.

Since then, however, Angelos has been busy mending fences. He is now a close adviser to Selig and was on the negotiating committee that helped hammer out the new labor settlement.

Some baseball insiders suggest that despite the fierce objections Angelos is raising, he won't fight to the bitter end. More likely, they say, he will negotiate a deal with MLB that could exceed $100 million and then unload his disappointing team.

Angelos already may be contemplating his exit. In the past six weeks, he has spoken with a friend and potential investor about selling the Orioles. The meeting with Raymond A. "Chip" Mason, chairman and CEO of Baltimore-based brokerage Legg Mason Wood Walker Inc., was "merely a conversation," Angelos cautions. Adds Mason: "I wouldn't say something serious is going on." Not yet, anyway.

By Mark Hyman in Baltimore

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