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Potential suitors keep an eye on Rays

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman poses with members of the Chicago Cubs and showgirls before a spring training game between the Cubs and the Seattle Mariners in March. Goodman wants a professional sports team in Las Vegas before his term expires in 2011.

Associated Press

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman poses with members of the Chicago Cubs and showgirls before a spring training game between the Cubs and the Seattle Mariners in March. Goodman wants a professional sports team in Las Vegas before his term expires in 2011.

LAS VEGAS — The mayor of Las Vegas sure seems to know a lot about the Tampa Bay Rays.

"They have great pitching,'' says Oscar Goodman, anxious to lure the major leagues to his city. "The infield is solid. I think they have the nucleus to become a dynasty."

But in St. Petersburg?

Or in Las Vegas?

As baseball executives gather Monday on the Strip for four days of meetings, Goodman will be there, showgirls on each arm, pressuring baseball's brass for a team.

Your team.

Goodman is not close to winning the Rays, or any other franchise, but he's further along than you might think.

And he's not the only one eyeing the Rays.

Gambling on baseball

Goodman would probably have a hard time getting elected to the St. Petersburg City Council.

In Nevada, it's been suggested the 69-year-old Goodman could run for governor.

The third-term mayor, a former lawyer for the mob, once suggested people caught spraypainting graffiti lose a thumb on public television.

He told fourth-graders his hobby was drinking. When a child asked what he would bring to a deserted island, Goodman answered: "A bottle of gin."

"I don't care what people say or think," says Goodman, who played himself in the movie Casino. "I do what's right."

In 2004, when Las Vegas was considered as a possible home for the Florida Marlins, Goodman showed up at baseball's winter meetings with two showgirls and an Elvis impersonator.

"The owners ran away from me," Goodman said.

Then friend and former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda came over, hugged Goodman and said hello to the girls.

Next came Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. Then former Cincinnati Red Tony Perez, an executive with the Marlins.

"The owners looked around, wondering, who is this guy?" Goodman said. "They'll be looking for me this time."

Past the glitz and the provocative comments, Goodman is serious about his quest for a major league franchise.

Las Vegas is one of the 10 fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country, with its population increasing almost 30 percent between 2000 and 2006. It's within driving distance of San Diego, Phoenix and Los Angeles.

And, perhaps most important, it saw 39-million visitors in 2007.

"I hope some day they will come to their senses and realize this is a great market," Goodman said.

Movement already is happening. The sports research division of PricewaterhouseCoopers says it is studying the Las Vegas market for an unnamed client.

And while Major League Baseball asked Goodman to stop talking to the Marlins about relocation, baseball executives recognize Las Vegas' potential.

MLB president Bob Dupuy called Las Vegas "one of the most attractive markets in the U.S. for a pro sports franchise," and said it was a serious candidate to attract the Montreal Expos when they were moving.

Building a stadium would not be an issue, Goodman said. Neither would a public vote, which would not be required.

And on sports betting, a sticky issue for professional sports, a compromise likely could be reached that would prevent gamblers from betting on Las Vegas home games, Goodman said.

Goodman would not specifically talk about the Rays — he doesn't want to be used as leverage for the pursuit of a stadium in St. Petersburg, nor does he want to upset big league executives.

But from afar, Goodman has noticed the thousands of empty seats at Tropicana Field during the past season. He wants to nail down a baseball, basketball or hockey franchise before he leaves office in 2011.

What are the odds?

"I win this bet. It's guaranteed," Goodman said. "There will be a building being built with a team having signed to be in there before I'm through."

A second suitor

Meet another player: Portland, Ore.

The Rose City doesn't have the political muscle Goodman brings in Las Vegas, but it may have something even better — money.

As part of its failed effort to lure the Expos in 2003, the Oregon state Legislature earmarked $150-million toward building a ballpark. That legislation does not sunset.

Boosters have potential sites picked out for a stadium and have been working with the same architecture firm that designed the plan for the Rays' $450-million waterfront proposal.

They also tout the potential corporate support of Nike, headquartered in nearby Beaverton.

Steve Kanter, who heads the local community group seeking a major league team, said the courting of the Expos showed Major League Baseball that Portland is ready for a team full time.

"We're keeping our eyes on the Rays," said Kanter, a law professor at Lewis & Clark College in Portland. "We are expecting it's going to take awhile to play out one way or another."

Kanter said Portland baseball officials spoke with a representative of then-Devil Rays owner Vince Naimoli about the possibility of relocating to Oregon.

The talks did not persist, Kanter said, and no discussions have taken place with current ownership.

"We wouldn't want to appear to be doing anything that might interfere or get into a bidding war with the local community there," Kanter said. "But at the same time, we're anxious and willing to talk to anybody ready to start exploring other options."

Complicating matters, Portland is considering a Major League Soccer franchise. And even a Portland booster says convincing Major League Baseball might be difficult.

"The odds are extremely long a relocation would occur any time soon," said Murray Brown, who founded the Web site bizofbaseball.com and also has worked on the effort to get a MLB team to Portland. "In this economic climate, Major League Baseball is going to have a hard time pulling up stakes for something that's not a known quantity."

No imminent threat

So, should you worry?

Probably not.

At least not yet.

The Rays still hope to build a new ballpark in the Tampa Bay area, and likely are prepared to continue pressing local officials for public funding. That back-and-forth could take years.

At the same time, while Portland and Las Vegas might be motivated to attract a team, the two cities are far from a panacea for Major League Baseball. Both come with questions as a market. Just like Tampa Bay.

The Rays themselves dismiss any talk of relocation.

"We have been and remain singularly focused on making baseball work in Tampa Bay," principal owner Stuart Sternberg said.

In any event, moving is not as simple as packing up a Ryder truck.

The Rays have a lease to play in Tropicana Field through the 2027 season.

At a minimum, the Rays would be forced to pay off the outstanding debt on Tropicana Field if it left town before 2016, which now stands at $80-million. The debt total drops to $47-million in 2012 and $24.6-million in 2014.

A judge might also force them to stay.

But it's not out of the question the Rays could leave if a new ballpark isn't eventually built, said Rob Canton, director of the sports, convention and tourism research division of Pricewater­houseCoopers.

"The long-term viability of the Rays is in question if there isn't a new ballpark," Canton said.

Portland or Las Vegas could offer to build the Rays a stadium for free. And the Rays could then use the $150-million they would have contributed to a ballpark in St. Petersburg to negotiate their way out of the city's lease.

The moves are highly speculative, but it's not impossible.

In the end, maybe posturing by Portland and Las Vegas is what it takes to get a new ballpark built in the Tampa Bay area. Like the leverage St. Petersburg created for the Chicago White Sox and San Francisco Giants.

Or maybe it means the team find its new ballpark — 2,500 miles away.

Las Vegas

Population: 1.84-million

pro sports teams: 0

Median age: 34.8

Per capita income: $38,281

Local TV market: 728,000

Noteworthy: 39-million

visitors in 2007

Portland

Population: 2.17-million

pro sports teams: 1

Median age: 35.4

Per capita income: $36,845

Local TV market: 1.18-million

Noteworthy: $150-million in state money available

Tampa Bay

Population: 2.72-million

pro sports teams: 3

Median age: 40.7

Per capita income: $35,541

Local TV market: 1.82-million

Noteworthy: Rays lease runs through 2027

Potential suitors keep an eye on Rays 12/05/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 8, 2008 11:26am]
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