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Focus shifts to luring an existing franchise

Baseball did not come to Tampa Bay, so Tampa Bay is going after baseball. Minutes after Denver and Miami were announced as the top expansion choices Monday, Tampa Bay baseball officials said they would seek to move an existing franchise to the Florida Suncoast Dome and a new group already has formed to help in that pursuit.

"We're not done. We've already heard from some would-be movers," said Stephen Porter, managing general partner of Tampa Bay's ownership group. "Whether they'll be permitted to move is another story."

Historically, Major League Baseball has frowned upon relocation. Past moves have sparked threats of lawsuits and congressional intervention from areas that have lost teams. The last move was nearly 20 years ago.

"The history of franchise moves is not terrific," baseball commissioner Fay Vincent told the St. Petersburg Times Monday. "My view is that if franchise relocations have to occur, they should be carefully considered as the near last resort. We would rather make baseball successful where it is."

Porter would not say which existing teams have been in contact with him. Several baseball franchises have been mentioned as possible contenders for a move _ Houston, Cleveland and Seattle among them _ but none have openly talked about a relocation.

"I know some clubs are thinking about it," said Philadelphia Phillies owner Bill Giles, a member of the expansion committee. "Whether they can get approval on that, I don't know."

Assistant City Manager Rick Dodge said the pursuit of an existing franchise will begin immediately, and Paul Getting, the executive vice president of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, said a group of local business leaders is prepared to invest money to make it happen.

Now that the expansion process is nearly complete, the Tampa Bay area is no longer exclusively tied to the Porter ownership group.

Getting said the Chamber group, which was formed last week, is recruiting investors to help the baseball effort in several ways.

This new group could serve as limited partners if a lead investor in Tampa Bay seeks to buy a franchise. It also could add local investors if a current team owner wants to move to Tampa Bay or it could help guarantee the sale of luxury boxes at the Dome.

Since Miami and Denver have been pegged as the new expansion sites, Getting said Tampa Bay should be next in line if a franchise moves. As many as nine major league franchises are either for sale or considering a sale, Dodge said.

"We're actually in reasonably good shape," Getting said. "I guess this puts us at the top of the heap."

Tampa businessman Frank Morsani, who headed an ownership group that spent several years trying to secure a franchise in Tampa Bay, said Monday that he does not have much hope for relocation.

Morsani's group once purchased 42 percent of the Minnesota Twins and re-sold it, at baseball's request, soon afterward. It also made an unsuccessful attempt to buy the Texas Rangers several years ago. Morsani, who dropped out of the expansion game when Porter's group was chosen as the lead Tampa Bay investor group, said he is not likely to seek an existing team.

"I don't happen to think relocation is doable in the near term," Morsani said Monday. "It's hard to justify leaving an existing city. It's a remote possibility."

Vincent has said a baseball franchise would have to meet certain criteria before he would permit a move. Among the criteria is a lack of political and local support, an inadequate playing facility, declining attendance and a loss of money.

The Cleveland Indians met the criteria last year, Vincent said, but a newly planned stadium may keep the team in Ohio. Hank Peters, the president of the Indians, said team owners are negotiating a lease for the proposed new stadium. There is currently an $89-million gap between available funds and cost of the joint publicly/privately financed stadium.

"It's very important that this stadium be successful because there are some major problems with our present location," Peters said. "But we're optimistic that we'll have a long-term agreement in Cleveland. I don't even want to comment about the possibility of moving the team."

The Houston Astros and Baltimore Orioles are for sale, but neither team is likely to move to St. Petersburg. Orioles owner Eli Jacobs has said he will only sell to a buyer who will keep the team in Baltimore, and the team is expected to move to a new stadium next season.

The Astros have had trouble finding local investors, but it is unlikely American League owners would approve a franchise move that would put a second National League team in Florida. Reached at his home Monday evening, Astros owner John McMullen declined to comment on his team's sale.

The Seattle Mariners have long been mentioned as a candidate for a move, although team owner Jeff Smulyan has steadfastly denied that. Smulyan declined to return phone calls Monday evening.

_ Times staff writer Thomas C. Tobin contributed to this report.

The numbers

Here is a comparison of three markets for baseball: Tampa Bay, Denver and South Florida.

1990 population: ages 18-45

Denver _ 1,317,000

South Florida _ 1,653,083

Tampa Bay _ 1,096,529

1990 population: ages 45-65

Denver _ 407,542

South Florida _ 973,336

Tampa Bay _ 729,480

1990 population: ages 65-over

Denver _ 232,825.

South Florida _ 866,582.

Tampa Bay _ 720,453.

Projected growth: 1990-95

Denver _ +2.3 percent.

South Florida _ +10.2 percent.

Tampa Bay _ +11.2 percent.

TV market population

Denver _ 2,645,400 (20th).

South Florida _ 4,451,500 (10th).

Tampa Bay _ 3,160,800 (16th).

Source: Arbitron

The high hurdles of moving a franchise

Baseball generally has frowned on the shifting of franchises from one city to another. The last time it happened was in 1972, when the Washington Senators became the Texas Rangers. Commissioner Fay Vincent also doesn't like the idea, and has established guidelines that would have to be met before he would approve any move (baseball owners also would have to approve). They are (with previously published comments):

A team would have to be losing money ...

A lucrative TV contract and the $95-million each expansion team has to pay to get a franchise will help keep many teams out of the red. But baseball salaries are rising rapidly with some players getting as much as $5-million a year. And tere are teams in smaller markets (which limits revenue from TV and radio contracts) such as the Pittsburgh Pirates, whose success means paying huge contracts to star players or losing them through free-agency.

... have declining attendance ...

Goes hand-in-hand with the first point: Poor attendance lessens the chances of making a profit. Usually, if the team has some success, attendance will increase. If an owner can show there is no correlation in his or her market, the strength of the argument improves.

... an inadequate playing facility ...

The prime exhibit here is the Cleveland Indians. They have played in an older, huge stadium (70,000-plus seats). Boosters in northern-Ohio have been working on a proposal to build the Indians a new stadium. If that fails, Vincent has said, he might look favorably on a relocation. San Francisco also wants out of Candlestick Park.

... and a lack of political and local support

The Chicago White Sox fell into this category, as well as the old park one. They pushed for a new stadium to replace ancient Comiskey Park and got little support. Only when St. Petersburg seriously threatened to swipe the team did Illinois politicians pave the way for a new ballpark. Local support takes this form: When an owner wants to sell, he or she will typically look for a local buyer. If none surfaces, the owner will then make noises about moving the franchise. That usually arks outrage from the community, and uncovers potential buyers. Teams currently looking for buyers - and often mentioned as ones that could move - include the Houston Astros and Montreal Expos.

Sources: Times wires, Times files