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Another year, same problems face the Nationals

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."