GW alum sees MLB ownership dream fading

As the Major League Baseball season began one year ago, the Montreal Expos were said to be starting their final season before relocation. The three primary areas looking to acquire the Expos – the District, Northern Virginia and Portland, Ore. – all thought a decision would be made by the All-Star break. It wasn’t.

Now another baseball season has begun, and the Expos are still splitting their time between Montreal and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Again, baseball has said a decision will be made this year, and the Expos will be playing elsewhere in 2005. But the list of possible sites has expanded to include Monterrey, Mexico; Hampton Roads, Va.; Las Vegas; San Antonio, San Juan and recent addition Connecticut, as well as the original three favorites.

Heading up the Northern Virginia effort is Bill Collins, a 1972 GW graduate and member of the GW Athletic Hall of Fame who had a distinguished college baseball career as a catcher. Collins played minor league ball, but left to return to his native Washington, where he has had a successful business career that included a stint as CEO for MetroCall, one of the nation’s largest pager services, until 2003.

In an interview with the Hatchet, Collins discussed his pursuit of a baseball team, which began 11 years ago.

On why a a team and a stadium in Northern Virginia makes more sense than the District:

“We made a decision a long time ago that if you’re going to be successful, this team needs to be where the future growth, the economic growth, where the people, where the families and where the market are. The market is south and west. It’s not north and east and that’s just plain demographics. I’ve lived here my whole life … I just have watched where the future is and where the growth is and some of the problems that come through in our surveys loud and clear, that once people leave, either inside the city or inside the beltway, they go outside and they don’t come back in, for whatever reason. And they don’t ask their wife and kids to hop on the Metro and come downtown … That’s just one of the problems. It’s families that drive the crowds and families are all located outside the beltway.”

On the Northern Virginia Astros:

“In 1995, I was approached by (Houston Astros owner) Drayton McLain at the all-star game in Texas and for the next three months we put together a deal for the sale and relocation of the Houston Astros here to this area to begin play in 1997 at RFK Stadium and then move to a new stadium in Virginia … And then baseball basically told Drayton McLain that he couldn’t just pick up and leave Houston. He just couldn’t sell the team. He had to go back and give it another try and hold a public referendum on a new stadium deal. And (MLB Commissioner Bud) Selig and the president of the National League went down there and worked on the mayor and everybody, and they put a financing plan in place but it had to go to a referendum. Drayton kept telling me there was zero chance of this thing passing … But in mid-October, the Houston Oilers announced that they were leaving town to move to Tennessee, and at that point, everybody in the city of Houston realized they couldn’t lose football and baseball, even though they cared a heck of a lot more about football. So they ended up passing it by three-tenths of one percent.”

On MLB’s process for choosing the Expos new home:

“Last year they put in place the process, and we worked within it, followed it, worked closely with the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority and we were convinced that that decision was going to be made by December and it wasn’t. So there’s certainly always a level of frustration.”

On how much longer Northern Virginia will pursue the Expos:

“We get to the point this year when we end up having a sunset provision on our legislation. It was put into place in ’96, ’97; never did we think it would go as far as January of 2005. So that legislation that calls for public and private partnership in financing a Major League Baseball stadium in Virginia goes away. And we made a decision along with the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority not to go back to the legislature during this tumultuous time in Richmond. We’ve spent all we possibly can, we’ve provided everything that we could ask, we don’t think you could put together another financing plan as good as what was put in front of baseball. If a decision hasn’t been made by that time, the legislation goes away, which in effect does away with this effort in Virginia.”

On whether MLB should just move the Expos and then figure out the details:

“We made that appeal. We put an offer to just buy them outright. There’s been so many things that just never appear in the paper; the guys here who follow Washington sports just have no concept of what’s taking place …We offered to buy the team in 1998 with one ownership group. We put an offer directly to Major League Baseball to buy the team for more than what they had just sold the World Champion Florida Marlins. We then offered to play all 81 games in RFK Stadium and to pay baseball a guaranteed 30 million plus, which would have meant that they would not have lost any money whatsoever on that team. And they continue to say that they’re going to continue with their process.”

On his confidence that MLB will make a relocation decision this year:

“We believe they will make that decision by September, the final decision. They’ll probably have to make the market decision maybe even by July, to allow them time to work with ownership. But I’m very confident. If I wasn’t, we wouldn’t have gone through with it this time around. But after meeting with (MLB President) Bob Dupuy a couple of times, we’re very confident that that process will take place and a decision will be made. We’ve got to just take baseball at its word, and this is the first time Bud Selig has come out and said in a press conference right after the owners meetings that this is the process and it’s going to happen this year.”

On whether MLB has been too secretive in this process:

“Well yeah, but the problem is you’re dealing with public entities, and you’re dealing with plans that are being formulated in stages in a process that’s not really ever been very clear. So it’s difficult and everything’s a moving target. A year ago, people may have said Portland is this great opportunity. Now it has fallen off of the face of the earth …So I think baseball is hesitant to go too far out front to do anything for anybody because that’s what happens. They’re trying to create markets. They’re trying to create this thing in Vegas right now, or in Monterrey. I mean, are you kidding me? Our soccer team goes down there and everybody’s yelling ‘Osama, Osama.’ It’s just nuts. The nation’s capital and this region, 4.7, 5.2 million people depending on which counties you count, is without a Major League Baseball team and there are many teams around the country who are struggling. But our belief has always been that when a decision is made upon relocation …there’s only one answer, no matter how you go about it and how you figure it out. And that’s Northern Virginia.”

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