Baseball in Va. may be closer than you think


The worse it gets for small-market teams, the better it looks for Northern Virginia.

The prospect of a National League team 60 miles from Camden Yards still isn't imminent. But more and more, it appears inevitable.

Indeed, one long-term outcome of the game's declining attendance is that Northern Virginia might get a team sooner than expected.

"I would have thought that after the expansion process was completed that we would have to wait until the second round of expansion," said Bill Collins, head of the Northern Virginia group.

"What is being told to me, by major-league owners and people within baseball, is that it's their belief we have a better shot at market relocation."

In other words, stealing a team.

Orioles owner Peter Angelos need not worry yet -- nothing will happen until after a new collective-bargaining agreement is reached and the owners implement revenue sharing.

Teams like Montreal and San Diego are waiting for such a bailout to determine whether they can survive, but who knows when the agreement will come, or whether it will correct small-market problems?

Any way you look at it, time is on Collins' side. Pittsburgh is still for sale. That could be an option for Collins, if prospective owner John Rigas can't reduce the amount of debt in his deal.

These teams don't just need revenue sharing -- they need new stadiums. And the state of Virginia is offering one, most likely in Fairfax County or Loudoun County.

Angelos bought the Orioles for $173 million. The strike lowered the value of the franchise. Competition would lower it further.

The Northern Virginia team would play its first two seasons at RFK Stadium in Washington, then move into a ballpark that would be even more state-of-the-art than Camden Yards.

Heck, commissioner Bud Selig probably would take the deal for his Milwaukee Brewers, if league rules didn't prevent an American League team from moving within 75 miles of Baltimore.

Selig wants a new stadium for his beloved Brewers, and if financing can't be arranged in Milwaukee, he'll likely search for a better deal.

That's the climate right now -- 14 of the 28 major-league teams are unhappy with their stadium arrangements, and those in small markets can't help but find Northern Virginia attractive.

"All the economics and demographics seem to be there," said Claude Brochu, president of the Expos. "It's a huge area with 5 million people -- a huge population base, and very rich.

"It's obviously an ideal spot. I'm sure they'll get a franchise one of these days."

The Expos? Brochu said they're not for sale. But their average attendance was 19,503 before Friday night's game. Their local radio and TV income is limited. And they're operating without a lease at Olympic Stadium.

"We don't get enough revenue out of the stadium," Brochu said. "We've got to fix that."

Brochu told USA Today the Expos are "probably in better shape than 20 other clubs," but who is he kidding? The team might soon trade pitcher Jeff Fassero to get its payroll below $10 million.

Collins hasn't spoken with Brochu since last March's expansion meeting, but he just returned from the All-Star Game, and continues to network with other owners.

"If in fact that club becomes available for sale, I know we'll get a call," Collins said.

Indeed, this is almost a race.

Baltimore Stallions owner Jim Speros, one of Collins' minority investors, said that if their group doesn't buy the Expos within two years, the Padres might move to Northern Virginia first.

Larry Lucchino, the Padres' president, is the former president of the Orioles and a partner in the Washington law firm founded by the late Edward Bennett Williams.

"In two years, Larry will make a decision to stay out there, move to Mexico or come to Northern Virginia," Speros said. "He's got tremendous connections in this area."

Responded Lucchino, "I've got my hands full in San Diego right now."

The Padres want a new park -- their lease is through 1999, but the city of San Diego is planning to expand Jack Murphy Stadium by 13,000 seats, making it even less fan-friendly for baseball.

Still, Padres owner John Moores is committed to succeeding in San Diego, where the average attendance was 13,385 before Friday night's game. And Collins believes it would be difficult for the Padres to relocate across the country.

Which isn't to say Lucchino is out of the picture.

He has the option to leave the Padres after one year, and Collins did not rule out the possibility that Lucchino eventually could join his group.

"The reality is, we're fairly entrenched, working within all levels of government and everyone involved, be it RFK Stadium or the state of Virginia," Collins said.

"Maybe ownership would consider selling the club, and [Lucchino] would come as part of that. That would be fine, too.

"Larry is one of the most well-respected men within baseball. He's an outstanding executive. If you wanted someone involved, you'd certainly look to someone like him."

Lucchino certainly would help the Collins group secure approval from Major League Baseball, and it's conceivable he could serve club president as well.

So, it could be the Padres, it could be the Expos, it could be the Pirates. The question is not if Northern Virginia will get a team, but when.

"If a community rejects a new stadium in a Seattle or a Pittsburgh, the owner is going to have to look long and hard: What is the future? Is revenue sharing a key component? Will those funds make up the difference?" Collins said.

"What drives this is the market. We happen to have a market that will support major-league baseball in the long term. We're virgin territory. There is no other professional sport in Virginia."

It all sounds so inevitable.

0$ "Absolutely," Bill Collins said.

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