WASHINGTON - Baseball fans in the nation's capital might not have long to cheer their new team.
The District of Columbia Council voted 7-6 Tuesday night to approve legislation that would finance construction of a ballpark. But it contained a provision that could cause the baseball commissioner's office to reopen the search for a long-term home for the Expos franchise, which has been tentatively renamed the Nationals.
The legislation was amended to require private financing for at least half the stadium construction costs, a provision not contained in the September agreement between baseball and Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams.
"We will review the amendments and the legislation as passed and have a response (Wednesday)," said Bob DuPuy, baseball's chief operating officer.
One response came almost immediately: The team postponed a news conference scheduled for Wednesday to unveil its new uniforms. No explanation was given.
The group that tried to lure the Expos to Northern Virginia was prepared to revive its bid.
"I don't think we've ever stopped," Norfolk group head Will Somerindyke Jr. said Wednesday. "We always wanted to keep this area an option. If the opportunity arises for the Expos again, we are going to be standing there along with everyone else.
"Whether we could get something done by next year, I think that's a stretch," he added. "It would be very, very tough."
Somerindyke's organization has returned the deposits it collected on nearly 10,000 season tickets and almost 100 luxury boxes during its drive to get the Expos. He didn't think it would be difficult to get those deposits back.
Council Chair Linda W. Cropp's amendment passed on a 10-3 vote after she threatened to withhold support from the overall package if the provision wasn't approved. Cropp said she didn't think the change violated the city's agreement with baseball, but would pressure Williams to find a private financier.
"I am not trying to kill the deal," said Cropp, who introduced the private financing measure. "I'm putting some teeth in it because I'm really disappointed with what I got from Major League Baseball."
Williams refused to answer questions after the vote.
"We'll have to see how baseball reacts," said Councilman Jack Evans, a baseball proponent. But he said he expects the council will have to change the legislation to keep the deal alive.
"We'll have until the end of the year to change this," Evans said.
City Administrator Robert Bobb said city negotiators were talking with baseball officials, but he didn't expect the owners to accept the change.
If the law stands, baseball's most likely response would be to have the team play the 2005 season at Washington's RFK Stadium while baseball's search committee resumes negotiations with cities that want the team.
One option could be Las Vegas, which was among the cities competing for the Expos and is still lobbying for a team. Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman campaigned at last week's winter meetings, arriving accompanied by showgirls wearing feathered headdresses.
Baseball opponents in Washington said the change makes the deal more equitable.
"All we're asking for is private financing for half the stadium," said Councilman Adrian Fenty, who voted against the final legislation. "That shouldn't be a problem."
The Montreal Expos became the first major league team outside the United States when they started play in 1969, but attendance at Olympic Stadium slumped over the past decade and the franchise was bought by the other 29 teams before the 2002 season. In 2003 and 2004, some of the team's home games were moved to Puerto Rico to raise revenue.
From the start, baseball owners insisted a publicly financed stadium for the team be a component of any move.
When the council gave its initial approval to the law on Nov. 30, it called for the city to issue $531 million in bonds to finance the plan. Baseball owners approved the Expos' move Dec. 2. on the condition that financing be put in place consistent with the deal, and that arrangements to prepare RFK Stadium for use in 2005 satisfied baseball commissioner Bud Selig.
Washington's new team would start play April 4 at Philadelphia and play its home opener April 14 against Arizona at RFK Stadium.
Monterrey, Mexico; Northern Virginia; Portland, Ore.; and San Juan, Puerto Rico, also tried to land the Expos.