MILWAUKEE (AP) – Major League Baseball hopes it can resolve differences with Washington officials on a stadium lease by next week, clearing the way for a sale of the Nationals.

Some progress was made in negotiations earlier this week, and talks should resume Friday, said Bob DuPuy, baseball’s chief operating officer.

“There are still some fundamental economic differences,” DuPuy said Wednesday after the first day of an owners’ meeting. “We’ve said all along our goal is get a lease and we’re going to continue to work on it. I don’t think it’ll be done Friday. We’re probably looking at next week.”

Baseball is balking at Washington’s request for guaranteed rent, believed to be about $6 million a year. Taxpayers are funding most of the $535 million ballpark on the Anacostia River, south of the U.S. Capitol, and the rent guarantee is designed to protect the district in the event the stadium is shut down by a work stoppage, natural disaster, terrorist attack.

District officials also have asked baseball for a letter of credit.

“We haven’t secured it in other stadium deals,” DuPuy said. “There’s no issue to the creditworthiness of baseball. We don’t feel it’s appropriate to change what we bargained for in the first place.

“We agreed to the payment, the amount,” he added. “It’s the nature of the payment.”

Stadium financing was a contentious issue even before the Nationals moved to Washington. Baseball’s other 29 clubs bought the franchise, then known as the Montreal Expos, in 2002 and announced in September 2004 it was moving it to Washington.

But the deal almost fell through when the District of Columbia Council amended the original stadium funding agreement to require that half the construction costs be privately paid. Baseball threatened to look for a new home, and the council eventually approved the legislation necessary to build the park.

The Nationals are playing at RFK Stadium until the new ballpark is finished.

“These are economic issues that should get resolved,” DuPuy said. “There are creative solutions to every problem. Hopefully between the lending institutions and the city, we’ll be able to find creative solutions.”

Once a lease is in place, baseball will transfer ownership of the team. Commissioner Bud Selig has interviewed five of the eight prospective ownership groups and plans to interview the final three after the owners meeting.

“We will be prepared to select ownership as soon as the lease obligation is done,” DuPuy said. While at the meetings, owners also will:

• Get an update on the World Baseball Classic, to be played March 3-20.

• Transfer control of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays from founding owner Vince Naimoli to Stuart Sternberg.

• Discuss ratification of baseball’s tough new drug policy, which includes a 50-game suspension for a first positive steroid test.

“We’re going to talk about that. It’s obviously not on the agenda, but I hope we will, yes,” Selig said when asked if owners might ratify the policy before leaving Thursday.

Spurred by the threat of legislation, players and owners agreed Tuesday to toughen their penalties for steroid use. In addition to the initial 50-game suspension, players would miss 100 games for a second offense and face a lifetime ban for a third.

The sport’s current penalties are a 10-day suspension for a first offense, 30 days for a second offense and 60 days for a third. The earliest a player could be banned for life is a fifth offense.

The agreement will also have to be ratified by the players.

“Yesterday was a day I was proud to be commissioner of baseball,” Selig said. “We had a problem and we did something about it.”

We had a problem. The sport had a problem. This is a problem that had to be solved. If not, somebody else was going to solve it in a more draconian way.”

Players also will be tested for amphetamines for the first time under the new deal. A first positive test will lead to mandatory additional testing, a second offense will draw a 25-game suspension, and a third offense will get 80 games.

“Amphetamines have been part of the game for a long, long time,” DuPuy said. “To, after half a century, deal with this issue, get it as part of the agreement, is a major step forward.”

AP-ES-11-16-05 1756EST

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