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Red Sox owner sees hope for Tampa Bay

Tampa Bay will now ignore the commandment, "Thou Shalt Not Steal." If there's to be baseball in the $135-million Florida Suncoast Dome, we must swipe the Mariners from Seattle, or rob Cleveland of its Indians, or take the Brewers from Milwaukee, or commit larceny with any major-league team willing to talk relocation to St. Petersburg. That's the hand Tampa Bay was dealt when it was bypassed in favor of Miami and Denver for National League expansion. Owners of 26 existing franchises, gathering by the Pacific seashore, know Tampa Bay is on the prowl.

"I think you'll get a team," said Boston Red Sox owner Haywood Sullivan. "For the long haul, I think Tampa Bay is a better spot for baseball than Miami. It looked good for expansion until Tampa Bay's big-money guys suddenly buckled."

On Tuesday, 24 hours after the NL expansion word came down, I heard no major-league voices blaming Tampa Bay's misfire on anything but a shrinking of financial commitment by Milwaukee/Palm Beach investors Sidney and Allen Kohl.

"Outside investors are frequently trouble," said Sullivan, who 40 years ago was a heroic football quarterback and baseball catcher at the University of Florida. "It's usually better if ownership is kept local, and their hearts and civic pride are hopefully as involved as their money."

I'm pretty much with Sully, having watched a Detroit-financed National Hockey League scheme melt in St. Petersburg's hands, plus Monday's baseball failure. Both miscarriages were due to a no-show of many millions of pledged outside dollars.

But, today in St. Petersburg, the Kohls are expected to retool their promises, along with ownership partners Stephen Porter and Joel Schur, for pursuit of an existing franchise that would be moveable to the Dome.

Could this be Act II of a scorching plot? Did the Kohls, Porter and Schur become disenchanted with an inflated business risk involving maybe $130-million in expansion-franchise startup costs? Did the Kohls pull back, knowing it probably meant Tampa Bay's doom in competition with Miami and Denver?

Did these men of extensive wealth, after researching the Seattles and Clevelands, decide that an existing ballclub might well be relocated to St. Petersburg at a comparative bargain price of $80-million or so? Questions worth pondering as Tampa Bay enters a new phase of baseball stalking.

Of course, if today's new Kohls-Porter-Schur effort works, and it leads to the Mariners or Indians or another familiar team transplanting to the Florida Suncoast Dome, I predict all their prior stumbles will be forgiven, even any games-playing with the area's baseball future. The ownership group will be celebrated as heroes.

That's business/baseball.

It's difficult to assess the possibilities of Tampa Bay stealing an existing team. Sullivan hesitated discussing the subject, since Major League Baseball's official stance is understandably in defiance of such piracy. But, eventually, the Red Sox bossman gave some insight.

"It could be easy to move a franchise," Sullivan said, "if a strong enough case is made by a team's owner. In these times of high finance, it would be tough to tell an owner he absolutely can't move if there's proof of operating at major disadvantages, such as with stadium problems or in an undersized market.

"I think it can be done."

Sullivan expects maybe a half-dozen franchises to be sold in coming months. "Most of them won't be moveable to another locale, like in Montreal's case," he added. "Cleveland, I think, will wind up getting its new ballpark and keeping its team. But I also wouldn't be surprised if a ballclub or two didn't become moveable."

Boston's owner is sold on Tampa Bay as a major-league site, and on playing summertime Florida baseball in a domed stadium.

"It's silly to suggest outdoor baseball in Miami won't at times be difficult weatherwise," he commented over Tuesday lunch. "We have a Red Sox farm team in Florida, and darned if I like sitting outside and watching them play in the heat and humidity and thunderstorms of July, August and September. Fans would find the comfort of a dome mighty appealing."

May they get the chance.