Another year, same problems face the Nationals

Updated: February 16, 2006, 4:30 PM ET
Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- In at least one very practical sense, the Washington Nationals are still the Montreal Expos. Despite a full season playing in the nation's capital, the team's accounting department is still in Canada.

"We've got to get the accounting department here," team president Tony Tavares said Thursday. "We've had too many problems with getting bills paid, bills getting paid late, and what got lost in the mail between Montreal and here."

Hiring number crunchers to work in the RFK Stadium offices is one of about 20 things on Tavares' to-do list, which fits onto one page of a white legal pad. In many ways, his list is as important as any lineup manager Frank Robinson will make during spring training, which starts for the Nationals when pitchers and catchers report Saturday to Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla.

A year ago, Tavares' list became a well-known chronicle of the enormous task of relocating a major league franchise -- it was 90 items long at one point -- and this year's list, while shorter, has essentially the same underlying theme: Nothing is permanent with the Nationals, a team still in flux and at the mercy of haggling between baseball officials and politicians.

"Nobody anticipated this would happen again," Tavares said.

The Nationals won't get the long-term stability they need until they get a new owner, but commissioner Bud Selig said the team won't be sold until baseball has a firm lease agreement with the city for a new ballpark. Those negotiations have sputtered along for more than a year, with some members of the District of Columbia Council balking at the cost. The council finally approved a lease this month, but talks continue because baseball officials are unhappy with some of the details.

All of which makes Tavares' job tougher. For one thing, try selling tickets for this team.

"You want to be selling good news," Tavares said. "With this whole hullabaloo about the stadium and the uncertainly about the stadium, it provides a challenge. There's a pall over the franchise."

Tavares said there has been about an 80 percent renewal rate from season ticket holders. He said he expected sales to be down after last year's honeymoon season, and he's also noticed some fallout from the corruption investigation involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

"Some of the lobbying firms are getting cool feet," Tavares said.

Tavares has had to move forward with some items that he hoped would have been resolved by a new owner by now. The accounting department is moving to Washington. General manager Jim Bowden's contract, which got a six-month extension last fall, will soon need to be extended through the end of the season. Tavares has a new contract for the year, although it comes with a termination clause in which a new owner can send him packing with 14 months' pay.

"We pretty much go with the flow," Tavares said. "Even if everything moves right, my guess is that we don't have a firm deal with the city in place until the end of March, beginning of April. It'll take 60 to 90 days to bring the sale to closure. My guess is the All-Star break [for a new owner], and that's a best-case scenario. And a new owner's not going to come in here at the All-Star break and say, 'OK, I want that GM out of here."

Tavares' uncertain future hasn't kept him from being active in the stadium lease talks. Council chair Linda Cropp recently said the city may "not be able to do a Cadillac stadium, but we could do a Buick." Tavares is concerned the council's cost-cutting will strip the ballpark even further.

"I'm not going to say it's substandard right now, but I think if we go much further it'll be substandard," Tavares said.

Meanwhile, the Nationals are projected to play at least two more seasons at RFK, which itself needed some upgrades from last season. There's new grass -- Bermuda instead of rye -- and a new clay composition that will improve infield drainage. Tavares also has improved the maligned sound system and made a list of all the broken seats so the sports commission can fix them.

Tavares also needs to hire a new TV crew. The team is taking over game-day security control at the stadium this year, so he has some work to do on that. There are parking issues to sort out.

Tavares looked down at his list.

"Oh, God, what else?" he said. "It just goes on."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press