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Battle is East vs. West for NL

Today, expansion remains up in the air. In 1993, the two teams that join the National League, and the 12 existing teams, will be up in the air. And on the air. Travel and television add complications to the equation.

Is it better to have an additional pair of teams in the top-heavy Eastern time zone (where six of the 12 NL teams reside) or to add one there and one in the untapped Mountain time zone?

In most cases, according to an unscientific survey of some clubs' traveling secretaries (the people who coordinate team travel plans), Denver wouldn't be a particularly inconvenient stop on the road, but Tampa Bay would make things a lot more pleasant, especially if both new teams wind up in Florida.

"I don't know whether we'd combine Denver with Houston or with the three West Coast cities (San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco)," said Pittsburgh Pirates traveling secretary Greg Johnson. "If they do the latter, it's going to be a long road trip. West Coast trips are tough the way it is. Travel-wise, it'd probably be easier for us to have a team in Tampa."

Said Dirk Smith, the Giants' director of travel: "Flying from San Francisco to Denver and then on to Pittsburgh and home would be no different, really, than doing San Francisco to Pittsburgh to Tampa and home. Once we leave the state of California, we have a minimum 3{-hour flight, anyway.

"If Tampa's in the West, they'd be part of a Chicago-Atlanta-Tampa swing. Or maybe an Atlanta-Tampa-Miami trip. If they (the NL) are not going to realign (by shifting the Braves to the East and replacing them in the West with one of the East teams), then it makes it a lot easier for us to tie in a stop in Florida along with Atlanta. Right now, Atlanta's pretty much out there by itself."

The Dodgers, who train in Vero Beach, spent early April this way: cross-country flight from Florida to California for exhibition games against the Angels; cross-country flight to Atlanta for a season-opening series against the Braves; cross-country flight to Los Angeles for a home-opening series against the Padres.

"It's expensive when we go to Atlanta like we did for that trip," Dodgers traveling secretary Bill DeLury said. "Having another team there, one in St. Pete, would be a big advantage. And if we're going to be able to tie a stop in an eastern city with it, Miami's only a couple of hundred miles away.

"The West Coast clubs are pushing 50,000 miles a year. The Midwest clubs _ Chicago, St. Louis _ they do maybe 32,000 miles a year. Other than San Diego and San Francisco, our shortest road trip is Houston, 3{ hours. Chicago, St. Louis, their longest is 3{ hours to the west coast."

If Tampa Bay does wind up in the NL West, half of its night road games within the division would start at 10:05 or 10:35 p.m. EDT, when a lot of fans are bedding down for the night. Conversely, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco still would have more East Coast road games starting at 4:30 p.m., when their fans are still an hour or two away from getting home from work.

"If our contract stays the way it is beyond 1993," said ESPN's Loren Matthews, senior vice president, programing, "then I guess my reaction would be I'd prefer two Eastern time zone teams to one there and one in Denver for purely selfish reasons. That would maximize the number of advertising spots we can sell in a game if the (Tuesday and Friday, 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. doubleheader) games are three hours apart."

If Denver starts its games at 8:30 local (mountain) time, that's 10:30 eastern. That would fit into ESPN's package by, in effect, making Denver a West Coast club.

"But if Denver's games start at 7 or 7:30 local time, we wouldn't get any benefit," Matthews said.

The Braves were placed in the NL West in 1969, when the league added Montreal and San Diego and split into two divisions.

"We log about 50,000 miles a year, compared to 35,000 or so by the other Eastern (time zone) teams," said Bill Acree, the Braves' director of team travel and equipment manager. "We've kind of gotten used to it by now. But it would be nicer to have a divisional rival closer to home. Tampa Bay would be easier than Denver."

But Erik Ostling, Montreal's director of team travel, said it doesn't really matter where the new teams are placed.

"We could do California in one swing and St. Louis-Denver-Houston in another," Ostling said. "West Coast trips are just as long now as a lot of others. We have road trips of St. Louis-Philadelphia-Chicago and Houston-Atlanta-Cincinnati and New York-Philadelphia-Chicago. The West Coast is just a couple of extra hours in the air. Once you're on the road, a three-city trip is a three-city trip."