The National League put its pending expansion decision on indefinite hold Wednesday, a move Tampa Bay supporters said will allow them to strengthen their ownership group and improve their bid by adding local investors. The delay was requested when baseball's ownership committee said it needed more time to study the data on the six finalists for the two new teams. A final vote of all baseball owners from the National and American leagues, scheduled for next Wednesday, could come as soon as July but may not be held until the league's original Sept. 30 deadline, officials said.
The announcement came on the same day the Miami Herald and Rocky Mountain News, quoting unnamed sources, reported that South Florida and Denver were the choices of the NL expansion committee.
League president Bill White denied the reports through a spokeswoman and said no final recommendations have been made. However, it was confirmed Wednesday night that South Florida and Denver are indeed the leading choices, but Tampa Bay can get back into one of the top two positions because the race is still considered very close.
The Herald and News stories also said the Tampa Bay bid was hurt by questions about the amount of money the ownership group plans to borrow.
Stephen Porter, leader of the Tampa Bay ownership group, refused to reveal details of his group's financial package but stressed it met baseball's requirements, which allow for 40 percent financing of the $95-million deal.
But Philadelphia Phillies president Bill Giles, a member of the expansion committee, said, "The less that's financed the better."
Another member of the Tampa Bay group, Tampa attorney J.
Rex Farrior Jr., confirmed the group was planning to borrow some of the money, but said it was "a lot under 40 percent."
"We have a bank's commitment for more than we need," Farrior added. He didn't name the bank.
The delay could actually work to Tampa Bay's advantage because it gives the ownership group an opportunity to add more local investors, said Porter and Rick Dodge, the St. Petersburg assistant city manager leading the baseball effort.
"I feel more encouraged right now than ever," Dodge said. "We know what needs to happen and we've not been in that position before."
Porter said his group would "redouble its efforts" to add local investors.
"I don't know that I feel better than ever, but I can't see how this can hurt us," Porter said from his Washington law office. "I believe _ no, I more than believe _ I know we have a financial plan which falls within baseball's rules.
"Our financial plan is not going to get worse (given the delay). We said we're going to talk to a select group of local investors. We can add to our local base, add to our equity, reduce our debt element."
Farrior said the group is close to getting one other significant local investor and maybe two others. He would not identify them, other than to say one would be Hillsborough County businessman Lance C. Ring-haver, who was originally a member of the Frank Morsani-led ownership group.
"We don't need (them), we have all the financing in place," Farrior said.
It remained unclear, however, how the Tampa Bay group's financing compared to the other leading contenders. South Florida, according to published reports, plans to pay the fee without borrowing any money. The Denver group claims to have more than $100-million in equity but officials there haven't decided whether to draw on a $40-million line of credit to pay the fee.
Dodge said the extra time would help the ownership group improve its standing.
"I think we have a better view of how we can improve ourself in the competition," he said. "I feel like some of the curtains have gone up around the country about what everyone's assets and liabilities are and I think that clearer picture helps us compete better. I don't want to go beyond that because it is a competitive situation."
The ownership committee, composed of owners from both leagues, met Tuesday and realized the task of approving the six groups was too difficult.
"Pure and simple, it was a matter of dealing with all the material presented to us," said committee chairman Fred Kuhlmann, president of the St. Louis Cardinals. Normal ownership transfers take 60-90 days for approval. The 10-man ownership committee looks at several issues, including financial depth, degree of local ownership and background.
Other ownership committee members also said there was no hidden agenda to the delay. "Take the statement put out at its word," said Chicago White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf. "The ownership committee received a certain amount of information that was too much to digest in one week."
Several newspapers speculated today that certain members of the ownership committee requested the delay to allow Tampa Bay time to catch up, and also that the delay was announced because owners are also considering a possible sale or move of an existing team to one of the expansion-hopeful cities, but Kuhlmann denied both theories.
He said no specific members requested the delay, that it was "pretty much a consensus." Talk of any existing teams "didn't enter into" the discussion, he said.
"There were a lot of things that had to be done that probably couldn't be done in time to get everything tied up for next week," Commissioner Fay Vincent told the Associated Press. "I think it's mechanical stuff, but it's important stuff."
Expansion committee chairman Douglas Danforth gave similar reasons for the the delay and said his group had "essentially completed its task."
Dodge said the delay could be attributable to several factors, including "existing franchises that are probably distressed, that may wish to have a Miami or a Tampa Bay or a Denver available to go to."
Some of those franchises might be saying to themselves, "Why give them up to some newcomer when it's my salvation?" he said. "And the people I have talked to in baseball there's more going on that's both directly and indirectly related to this issue than any other time they can remember."
Representatives of the South Florida and Denver bids took Wednesday's news in stride. "We'll wait and see what happens along with everyone else. Change is a normal occasion in the business world," said Don Smiley, spokesman for the South Florida bid.
The Denver group's attorney, Paul Jacobs, said he was disappointed but he had faith in the process and "I don't see how this can be an advantage or disadvantage for anybody."
Porter said the delay "certainly should cast substantial doubt on rumors reported earlier today that a decision in favor of Miami and Denver had already been made."
The Porter group, known as Sunshine State Baseball Associates Ltd., consists of several investors, including: Sidney and Allen Kohl, millionaire investors and real estate developers; R. Mark Bostick, who heads a leading trucking business based in Auburndale; Roy Disney, vice chairman of The Walt Disney Co.; St. Petersburg lawyer and businessman Henry Esteva; local beer distributor Claude Focardi; Farrior; and S. Joel Schur, who with his cousin Porter owns the St. Petersburg Cardinals minor-league baseball team.
Teams most mentioned as relocation possibilities
Franchise relocation is not common in baseball. Commissioner Fay Vincent has said he is generally opposed to the moving of teams. To gain permission to relocate, teams must show a loss of money, declining attendance, an inadequate playing facility and a lack of political and local support.
The last major-league relocation was the Washington Senators moving to Arlington to become the Texas Rangers in 1972.
Below are the teams most often mentioned as possibilities for relocation.
Houston Astros _ Owner John McMullen put the team up for sale last November. In recent weeks, Houston officials have mentioned the possibility of selling the team to out-of-state investors. Rich DeVos, who is pursuing an expansion team for Orlando, has had informal discussions with McMullen. Louis Susman, who is representing Houston in the sale, said Wednesday that McMullen will talk to fellow owners at next week's league meeting about Houston's current status. Susman would not say whether McMullen is seeking permission to sell to out-of-state investors. "Our plan is to find investors in-state. We will update the owners at the meeting next week," Susman said. "Beyond that, I have no comment."
Cleveland Indians _ Commissioner Fay Vincent said last year that he might approve the move of the Indians if a new stadium is not built in Cleveland. The local government approved an excise tax last year that would help fund the construction of a joint publicly/privately financed baseball stadium and basketball arena. The Gateway sports facilities project is still iffy because, in part, original cost estimates were off. Currently, an $89-million gap exists between available funds and cost of the $390-million project. According to pacts signed last year, the Gateway Corp. is supposed to have leases with the Indians and Cavaliers completed by June 30. Ohio Gov. George V. Voinovich has hinted that the basketball arena should be postponed if the baseball stadium project is at all endangered.
Seattle Mariners _ Team owner Jeff Smulyan has repeatedly said the Mariners are not for sale and he is not considering relocation. However, rumors persist that Seattle could move. Philadelphia owner Bill Giles, a member of the expansion committee, has specifically singled out Seattle on at least two occasions as a possibility for relocation. Seattle's problems include a small local television contract, spotty support from the business community and a poor relationship with the local government. The Mariners, historically, have not drawn well. But this season Seattle is averaging 24,465 fans per game, an increase of about 27 percent over last season. On that pace, the Mariners would draw a team record 1.9-million fans this year.