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Original Issue

Capital Punishment

All the Washington Nationals need is an owner--and a place to play baseball

The name has changed, but the problems remain. The team formerly known as the Montreal Expos--who spent the last three embarrassing seasons as a ward of Major League Baseball, shuttling between a deserted stadium in Canada and a substandard one in San Juan for the past two--have a new name, the Washington Nationals, and new caps, which were unveiled on Monday. But no matter how you dress them up, they still face uncertain living quarters, unknown ownership and a roster that leaves them unlikely to contend.

Washington won the Expos primarily on the strength of its stadium plan, an owner-friendly public-financing package to construct a $440 million ballpark, less than a mile from the Capitol. (The team will play in RFK Stadium for the next three years.) Financing needs to be approved by the city council by Dec. 31, but local discontent (recent polls have showed residents disapprove of a publicly funded stadium by a 2-to-1 margin, and a man protesting stadium funding disrupted Monday's press conference) has delayed the approval process. Instead of rubber-stamping the plan, the council now wants the city to consider private-financing options. While a compromise is expected to be reached, every day without an agreement is another day the team spends in limbo.

MLB has received bid applications and $100,000 deposits from more than 20 groups. The league will affix a minimum $300 million price to the franchise and has fantasies about getting $400 million, but, says one potential buyer, the team's true value is in the 200s. Once a winning bid is made, the league will begin a vetting process, including approval by the other 29 owners, that will take at least two months. But the bidding itself could be held up until MLB and Orioles owner Peter Angelos agree on the amount of equity Angelos will have in a proposed regional sports network that would televise Baltimore's and Washington's games. Angelos wants a majority stake in the network as compensation for accepting a team in his backyard. Until the issue is resolved, bidders will have a hard time calculating the Nationals' value.

MLB hired Jim Bowden as caretaker G.M. three weeks ago. He acquired Jose Guillen from the Angels, but it will be difficult for the Nationals to significantly improve their anemic lineup until an owner arrives--which won't happen until after the premium free agents have been snapped up. "There's a lot to work out between now and Opening Day," says an MLB executive, "and the clock is starting to tick pretty fast." --Daniel G. Habib




Mayor Anthony Williams (top) pledged millions for a park--but protestors are speaking up.



  [See caption above.]