Potomac Cannons owner Art Silber announced Friday morning that his minor-league team has signed a player-development contract with the Montreal Expos. The move sets the stage for what could be a major boost to the franchise should the Expos’ major-league club relocate to the Washington area.
Officials with Prince William County’s team, which plays in the Class A Carolina League, hope they have found an affiliation that will spike fan interest. In the club’s 21 seasons since leaving Alexandria, it has gone through affiliations with five different major-league clubs, including the Cincinnati Reds the past two seasons. The Cannons and Expos have a two-year deal in place, but that contract likely would be extended in future years if Montreal’s National League team were to move to D.C. or Loudoun County — both within 30 miles of Potomac’s current home at Pfitzner Stadium.
“For a very long time, we have been seeking a long-term relationship with a major-league ball club,” Silber said at the news conference, which took place at the Ritz Carlton Tysons Corner. “With the — and I’ll put this word in quotes — ‘potentiality’ of the Montreal Expos moving to our area, we and they thought it would be appropriate for us to try to begin a relationship that we hope is going to last for an extremely long period of time.”
The Expos’ situation remains in limbo, as Major League Baseball’s 29 owners have run the franchise since buying it from Jeffrey Loria in 2002. But with MLB president and chief operating officer Bob DuPuy saying he wanted the issue resolved by Oct. 1, and with D.C. officials working on approval for a $400 million ballpark on South Capitol Street, the district appears to have taken the lead over Northern Virginia, Las Vegas, Norfolk, Portland, Ore., and Monterrey, Mexico — each of which has expressed interest in acquiring the Expos’ franchise.
In 2004, the Cannons made the playoffs for the first time since 1995. At the end of the season, though, Potomac notified Minor League Baseball that it wanted to look into finding a new partnership. Approximately two weeks ago, Major League Baseball officials gave the go-ahead for the Cannons to try to work out a deal with the Expos, Silber said.
Adam Wogan, Montreal’s director of player development, indicated Friday’s announcement should not necessarily be taken as a hint the Expos will fall in line and come to the area as well. However, both he and Silber said MLB officials nixed an agreement between the Cannons and Expos two years ago, when Potomac aligned with Cincinnati. Prince William’s franchise also has been affiliated with major-league clubs from Pittsburgh, Chicago, New York and St. Louis.
“From our perspective, there hasn’t been any interference from Major League Baseball,” said Wogan, who runs the Expos’ minor-league system. “But I have no day-to-day contacts with anyone [in Major League Baseball]. I know what I know about potential relocation from what I read from you all.”
On the same subject, Silber said, “We started talking about this a little more than two years ago. In all honesty, at that point I think Major League Baseball itself had problems with that happening. Although nobody told me this, my own feeling is that if they would have permitted it two years ago, it would have been construed as something where [the public would have thought] the club in Montreal was definitely coming to our area.”
Minor League Baseball vice president Stan Brand, a Washington attorney and a friend of Silber’s, was on hand for Friday’s announcement. He said a relationship between a minor-league team in Prince William and a major-league team in the Washington area undoubtedly would help the Cannons.
“It’s always a good decision when you can put your team near its affiliate,” Brand said after watching Silber and Wogan field questions from the media. “Whenever you can do it, that tends to be much more symbiotic for the fans. You see it all over the country. Baltimore pioneered it [with their four minor-league teams in Maryland] and there have been quite a few examples like in Dayton [the annual leader in attendance in the Midwest League], where Cincinnati waived its territorial rights so they could put their own minor-league team close by.”
Cannons president Lani Silber Weiss said, “It’s exciting due to the potential of the Expos coming, but the Expos are an exciting organization regardless. We look forward to working with them, so we can’t lose.”
And if an announcement ever comes that Montreal’s club is moving to this region, area fans now will have two causes for excitement — the addition of a National League franchise within short driving distance, and the immediate connection to a minor-league franchise three rungs below the majors. Montreal has a Double-A affiliate in Harrisburg, Pa., and a Triple-A team in New Orleans.
“I think the whole atmosphere with the public would be helped [by a local connection],” said Lamar Boone, Cannons Booster Club president since 1997. “At least when we go out and look for housing or for someone to provide meals, this would only improve those efforts.”
Silber’s next step will be to begin construction on a new stadium. In 2002, the Prince William Park Authority and Silber agreed to evenly split the cost of a $10.7 million ballpark adjacent to Pfitzner Stadium that would open in 2004. The Cannons’ owner, though, has been seeking a site that would entice more fans. Last year, the Cannons ranked fifth of the Carolina League’s eight teams in attendance with an average of 2,273 fans a game.
“I think this affects very positively with the stadium,” Silber said. “First of all, we’ve had incredible support from the county in terms of a new ballpark and getting something we need. I had a conversation with the county just yesterday as a matter of fact. Hopefully we are getting very close. We have a specific property in mind close to our existing ballpark. I’m hoping that’s something we can go public with soon and have ready very comfortably in time for the ’06 season.”