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Baseball effort lacked leaders, critics conclude

There was no one to sound the alarm. No general to dispatch the troops. In the battle to get an expansion baseball team, where were local political leaders when financial doubts arose about St. Petersburg's baseball ownership group? And had local leaders been more forceful, would it have made a difference?

These were among the questions being batted about Tuesday as Tampa Bay residents tried to make sense of the forces that tore apart hopes for an expansion baseball team for the Florida Suncoast Dome.

Those in the know say the question came down to money, or more precisely, the ownership group's lack of cash. St. Petersburg City Manager Robert Obering said that information was confidential. "I'm not sure we could have done anything about it had we known," Obering said.

Others wonder whether those at the forefront of the baseball effort should have or could have found out more quickly and done any more to shore up the flagging finances of the ownership group.

"Why wasn't the city alerted that we needed some contingent financing?" asked Joseph Rush, a local doctor and unsuccessful mayoral candidate. "Somebody should have been sounding the alarm. I'm not flush with money after sending 11 kids to college, but I would buy $25,000 worth of stock in that venture."

Rush said he called the city and offered to organize a consortium of 200 doctors to invest $5-million in the effort, but was turned down. Too many investors, he says he was told. Rush conceded his plan may not have been ideal, but it was an effort all the same.

Ron Mason, a former City Council member who didn't run for re-election when his term was up last April, said he was disappointed to see the newly elected mayor hadn't participated in the baseball effort.

"Dave Fischer either never caught up or he never had the interest," Mason said. "He was obviously absent from the inner workings of what went on."

Fischer, who has been St. Petersburg's mayor for two months, acknowledged that he has not been involved in the baseball effort. Fischer said he couldn't remember who first informed him there was a problem with the ownership group, didn't know when city officials became aware something was amiss, and wasn't involved in trying to correct the situation.

"I'm not sure what I could have done," Fischer said. "I don't know the parties. I'm not the person who could go out and find these kinds of investors."

The city's former mayor, Robert Ulrich, said he didn't fault Fischer since most of the groundwork for baseball had been laid before Fischer took office. Ulrich, however, said he began working "feverishly" when he learned of the pending trouble.

Ulrich said he first learned of the need for heavy-hitting investors late last week from media reports. He and several other community leaders gathered hastily to try to figure out if there were any way to salvage the situation. He concedes the efforts were too little, too late.

"I wish we had known it sooner, quite frankly," Ulrich said. "It's much easier to put out a fire before it's a raging blaze."

Dennis McDonald, a two-time unsuccessful mayoral candidate, points to the St. Petersburg Times in assessing the blame for the baseball situation. McDonald said the newspaper's editorial board supported building the Dome, and therefore Times Publishing Co., parent company of the Times, should have bought into the team.

Andrew Barnes, president/CEO of the Times Publishing, said investing in a baseball franchise while writing stories about it in the newspaper's news columns would be a blatant conflict of interest.

"Mr. McDonald appears to be adept at spending other people's money," Barnes said. "We feel the role of a newspaper is to report the news and it would have been compromised if we had become part owners of baseball."

Darryl Paulson, an associate professor of political science at University of South Florida, said the problem of weak leadership in the baseball arena has roots that reach past the events of the last few weeks. He said that when area leaders decided in 1982 to build the stadium in St. Petersburg instead of a site in the Gateway area, it caused a rift that never healed.

"With that, you lost the commitment areawide which was crucial to the success of baseball," said Paulson, who studies the local political scene.

The Hillsborough side of the bay was alienated, and had no financial or political stake in bringing baseball to the area, Paulson said.

If the area is to succeed in a quest for baseball, it must be united, Paulson said. Mason, the former council member, agreed. He said someone must step forward to nurse the city back to health after suffering the loss of an expansion team when the city was so close, and expectations were so high.

"This community is cut to the quick by the loss of baseball," Mason said. "We need a mother to hold our hand and say it's okay, to say that the sun will come up tomorrow. We need a leader."