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Hopes turn 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 said 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.

"I hope every franchise stays exactly 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.

Getting said the 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 could also 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.

"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 about 40 percent of the Minnesota Twins and re-sold it 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 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 are for sale, and the Seattle Mariners have long been mentioned as a candidate for a move, although team owner Jeff Smulyan has steadfastly denied that.

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