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Getting back in the game

Now that we've all dusted ourselves off, checked for broken bones (and broken spirits) and gotten back to work, the Tampa Bay community can begin the job of finding answers to the $95-million questions that were left hanging Monday after baseball's expansion committee bypassed us in favor of Denver and Miami. Many of those questions are properly directed to Stephen Porter and the other members of the ownership group that was selected by Major League Baseball last December to represent Tampa Bay in the expansion race. Only Porter and his partners can give a definitive response to the widespread speculation that Tampa Bay's bid failed largely as a result of problems in the group's financial structure.

Unfortunately, members of the Porter group have spent most of the past six months stonewalling any serious questions about their financial stake in the expansion race. Porter is supposed to be in town today to cope with questions about his group's failed effort. However, unless he and his principal partners suddenly choose to be much more candid at the conclusion of the expansion process than they were during it, we're unlikely to learn very much from them.

On the day his group was chosen to represent Tampa Bay, Porter said he viewed the selection "not only as an honor, but an obligation to complete the task, to make sure St. Petersburg gets a Major League Baseball franchise." From that day on, though, the central members of the Porter group gave no evidence that they considered themselves obliged to keep the people of Tampa Bay well informed about the course of the expansion process.

Even in the final frantic days, when rumors first began circulating that Tampa Bay's bid might be in trouble, Porter and his partners offered only the vaguest of assurances, continuing to refuse to answer any substantive questions about the group's financial strength. By the standards of private businessmen, their secretive posture was defensible. By the standards of an outside group with an acknowledged obligation to represent the interests of the entire region, they failed. Their assurances turned out to be misleading at best.

Questions about what went wrong are best directed to the Porter group. Even more difficult questions about where we go from here now confront St. Petersburg officials, who were called upon to represent the region's interests in the expansion race almost by default. Is there any realistic reason to believe that the pursuit of an existing baseball franchise could be successful anytime soon? If not, what is to be done with a dome that was built with baseball in mind but can be put to a variety of other uses? And can local investors be found to represent the region more openly and aggressively the next time we find ourselves in this kind of competition?

Unlike the principal investors in the Denver and Miami franchises, the most influential members of the Porter group are outsiders who viewed baseball strictly as a business proposition. After today, they, like the Chicago White Sox and Compuware before them, will be safely out of town, while the residents of the region are left to live with the repercussions of their failure.

Some current and former St. Petersburg officials probably wish that they could go hide in Washington or Beverly Hills for a while themselves, but they don't have that luxury. They are now left with nothing to show for three draining pursuits of big-league sports franchises. Maybe they've been played for patsies. Maybe they've just been victimized by a succession of bad luck. At least they, unlike some of the paper millionaires they have been doing business with, don't have to apologize for how hard they have worked to bring major-league sports to Tampa Bay.

However, until local investors come forward with the resources to compete for major-league franchises, Tampa Bay will continue to be in a vulnerable position, at the mercy of outside speculators who feel no real allegiance to the region. One of the hard lessons of this hard loss may be that, for all of its undeniable attributes, Tampa Bay will never truly take its place in the big leagues until it can place its destiny in the hands of local people with the dollars and the dedication that are needed to make it happen.

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