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Tampa Bay gets new deal in high-stakes game

When baseball called "Time out!" Wednesday, it saved Tampa Bay's major-league life. We were comatose, and dying. Ownership financing was the problem. Tampa Bay's bankrollers are plenty rich, worth about $1.5-billion, but the cash-up-front ante had dramatically risen in the National League expansion game. Let's compare it to poker. Six players at the table, but three hands were essentially folded _ those belonging to Buffalo, Washington and Orlando. There will be two winners. Minimum cash stakes established by big-league baseball croupiers was $57-million, or 60 percent of a total expansion fee of $95-million.

Denver's bet. Old Rocky plunges for more than $57-million, but I'm not sure how much beyond. Maybe $60-million cash, or even $65-million. Next up, Miami. Big spender Wayne Huizenga pulls a blockbuster wad from his pocket. "I'm in for $95-mil in cash!" he blares. Denver winces. Tampa Bay gasps.

Your turn, Tampa Bay That's where it got sticky. No longer was $57-million cash an ample investment. Denver, backed by beer money, had boosted the price required to stay in the expansion poker game. Miami, with its Captain Video, then went for oneupsmanship and blew the ante through the ballpark roof.

"Tampa Bay?"

"Tampa Bay?"

"You in, Tampa Bay?"

Sidney and Allen Kohl, we'd long assumed, would peel off $40-million or thereabouts as Tampa Bay's leading underwriters. It never happened. The Kohls weren't eager to throw nearly so much cash on the table. I don't think there's any doubt Tampa Bay's largest cash investor became Auburndale trucking magnate Mark Bostick.

"Tampa Bay? In or out?"

About then, baseball called "Time!" Tampa Bay was saved from dying at the expansion table. Not exactly Chapter 11, but we've been given time to reorganize. Tampa Bay craves a Huizenga, or a Coors, or at least another Bostick. Immediately, the hunt was on. Prospects are evident.

Of course, even with enhanced Tampa Bay cash, it'd be no lock to outdeal Denver and Miami. But it does beat being dead, and hanging out a "Dome for Rent" sign.

People in Denver are understandably screaming, wondering why Tampa Bay was given a chance to make a run for more blue chips. We were on death row, and along comes a call from the baseball governor. "Time out!" Tampa Bay gets a new hearing.

Somebody in Major League Baseball cares a lot about the Tampa Bay market, and also about St. Petersburg, a medium-sized city that risked building a $135-million domed stadium. If baseball didn't care, there would've been no timeout, and on June 12 the announcement would have unquestionably been "Miami-Denver."

When expansion poker resumes, Buffalo and Orlando and Washington are still going to be dead. It'll be Tampa Bay's turn, and we can't bluff. We put up, or we fold. By now, the ante may be $95-million up front, to match Captain Video's wad. Then we'll see how Denver reacts. If all three applicants bid $95-mil in cash, MLB would then break the tie.

One of us will lose.

But not even Major League Baseball, with its shaky history on issues of finance and politics, would be so dumb as to not work on behalf of a $95-million runner-up. Surely the AL and NL would search for another way to work the near-miss expansion city into the big leagues, perhaps by relocating an existing but troubled franchise.

Remember, folks, MLB hand-picked our ownership group. Brotherhoods headed by Frank Morsani and Tom Hammons were eliminated while a consortium of Steve Porter, Joel Schur and the Kohl brothers was chosen. But, ironically, it is Bostick, a member of the old Morsani bunch, who comes aboard and winds up being the No. 1 cash investor.

We need more like him.

Baseball has given Tampa Bay the ultimate mulligan. Another chance. Before long, the expansion poker game will resume. Tampa Bay must say "Call," or say "Adios."