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Steve Stone... buying the Spos?


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c/o suntimes.com

September 14, 2003


Steve Stone has been keeping a big secret this season. But after his cover was blown in a Las Vegas gossip column, the Cubs broadcaster decided to come clean Saturday.


Stone's longtime dream, to call the shots for a major-league team, is alive and well. Again. In fact, Stone's dream appears closer than ever.


Stone wants to buy the vagabond Montreal Expos and move them to Las Vegas. He wants to build them an intimate domed stadium in the desert--say 42,000 seats or so. He wants to see the team become the hottest act in Vegas since Wayne Newton was cool.


And guess what? Major League Baseball is interested.


Talk about a thrilling time for Stone: The Cubs, who won again Saturday, beating the Cincinnati Reds 9-6, are in a tight race for the division lead. And Stone's engaged in serious talks to purchase a major-league franchise.


"This has been the most exciting six months,'' Stone said. "You wonder why my voice sounds [scratchy]. It's not just because of the pennant race. It's because I've been talking all day, every day, all season long.''


Three hours during Cubs broadcasts, then several hours afterward, strategizing about acquiring the Expos. With all that talking, it's amazing that Stone's secret hasn't slipped out before now.


Somehow Stone and his partner, Lou Weisbach, managed to keep their pursuit quiet, at least from the press, telling people only on a need-to-know basis. Of course, they've told Major League Baseball all about their plan. And they've told potential investors.


The mayor of Las Vegas knows. Cubs president Andy MacPhail has known (because, after all, he is Stone's boss) for a while now.


Ownership groups in Washington, D.C., Northern Virginia and Portland, Ore., have been vying for the right to save the Expos from San Juan or Monterrey or whatever foreign city commissioner Bud Selig's dart lands on next. Most people figured the Expos would end up in or around the nation's capital. Not so quick. Quietly, Stone might have gained an edge.


"Discretion,'' Stone said, "has been a priority.''


Things have moved quickly since March, when Weisbach, the former Chicago businessman who heads Teamscape, a group looking to bring professional sports franchises to Las Vegas, called Stone "out of the blue.''


On Friday, Stone's group met with baseball representatives and Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman. Stone wasn't at the meeting. He was at Wrigley Field, broadcasting the Cubs game. Here's the gossip item that appeared in Saturday's Las Vegas Review-Journal:


"Mayor Oscar Goodman [had a] meeting at City Hall on Friday with what he characterized as 'well-connected, well-placed people' interested in moving the Montreal Expos to Las Vegas.''


The paper added that, "Chicago Cubs broadcaster Steve Stone ... is reported to be part of the prospective ownership group.''


For years, Selig has refused to consider Las Vegas as a viable city for a baseball franchise. What has changed? Everything, from attitudes about gambling, to baseball's attendance woes, to Las Vegas itself.


With lotto machines in grocery stores and casinos inching closer every day to cities such as Chicago, gambling has gone mainstream. With its ever-growing population and growing business diversification, Las Vegas has become respectable.


Baseball could use a city like Las Vegas. And, with its primary sports entertainment coming from a Triple-A baseball team (playing in the decrepit Cashman Field) and the UNLV Runnin' Rebels, Las Vegas could use baseball.


"It's been my dream for eight years to put a franchise in Las Vegas,'' said Stone, who does not see the gambling industry as a stumbling block to moving a team there.


The other ownership groups competing for the Expos might be surprised at this Las Vegas wild card. That MLB officials were present at Friday's hush-hush talks in Las Vegas suggest Stone's group might have an inside track.


Selig has put no official timeline on an Expos sale. But it behooves him to hurry because the Expos need to quit their nomadic existence.


And what about Stone? After being spurned for years by the Cubs and the rest of baseball in his pursuit of a general manager position, after falling short in his bid to buy the Oakland Athletics in 1999, Stone might finally get his own team. Every season in the broadcast booth, he proves to Cubs fans that he's the smartest guy in the game. But will he be able to apply his knowledge to drafting, scouting, making trades, signing free agents, hiring a manager? Stone just wants a chance to find out.


Stone doesn't know when the commissioner's office will make a decision on the Expos. Sometime this offseason? He wouldn't speculate. But the possibility of buying the franchise clearly has him psyched.


"You have no idea,'' he said.


Not to get ahead of ourselves, but if Stone's group gets the OK, what role does Stone see himself occupying?


"I don't believe in hands-off ownership,'' he said, with a laugh.


sounds good to me

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