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Word on relocation not promising

The two major-league baseball teams considered most likely to relocate to Tampa Bay said Wednesday they weren't interested. Cleveland Indians co-owner David H. Jacobs said he was "very much" optimistic a new stadium will be built in Cleveland, and his team will play in it. "We're going to stay where we are," Jacobs said.

Seattle Mariners chairman Jeff Smulyan said he is beginning to see dividends on his two-year effort to make baseball successful in the Pacific Northwest. "Our goal is to make baseball work in Seattle. We think we can," Smulyan said.

Also Wednesday, the investment firm handling the sale of the Houston Astros told the baseball ownership committee it was having trouble finding a buyer. But baseball officials would not say if the Astros sought official permission to seek out-of-town investors.

Back in Tampa Bay, Stephen Porter, head of the failed Tampa Bay expansion ownership group, said he has "quickly put out feelers" to existing teams. And Thomas Hammons, who led a rival expansion group, said he might be interested in helping lure an existing team to the Florida Suncoast Dome, but only if he felt the mission had a "good chance" of success.

The Indians and Mariners have been considered by many baseball observers to be the two franchises most likely to relocate.

The Mariners _ who were born in baseball's last expansion in 1977 _ have struggled at the gate, don't have strong support from the municipal and business communities and have a small local television package. According to a Financial World magazine report, the estimated value of the Seattle team is $71.4-million _ last among the 26 major-league baseball franchises.

The Indians desperately want out of Cleveland Stadium, where they play in front of small crowds (an AL-low 14,148 average this season), and have an unfavorable lease _ the Cleveland Browns football team gets all revenues from parking, concessions and loge boxes. According to Financial World, the estimated value of the Indians is $75.0-million (23rd).

Jacobs, in a rare interview, said the new stadium _ part of the Gateway Project in downtown Cleveland _ is coming together step-by-step. Plans call for a baseball stadium to be built first, with a new arena for the NBA Cleveland Cavaliers to follow. No leases have been signed and there is some question as to where the remaining funding (reportedly $89-million) will come from for the $390-million public/private project.

But Jacobs said he is confident it will happen. "It's a done deal. All we have to do is pull it together," he said.

Told Tampa Bay fans would enjoy watching his team play in their town, he said: "They won't see them."

Smulyan, who heads a group that purchased the team two years ago for a reported $80-million, said ownership has "made a lot of strides" with the Seattle fans. Attendance is up more than 25 percent over last season, with an average of 24,865 _ ninth in the league. The team has played well, which also helps.

Smulyan said he did not want to speculate on the prospect of a move should the team's financial picture worsen. "We think we can make it work," said Smulyan.

Asked if he wanted to hear from the Tampa Bay interests, he responded: "I don't know. Right now, that's not our primary reason for existing. I just want to see if we beat the Red Sox tonight."

Commissioner Fay Vincent told the New York Times on Tuesday that Seattle was a "major concern because the city and the corporate community have not been helpful."

Smulyan said he did admire the baseball support in the Tampa Bay area and wouldn't mind seeing it spread to his corner of the country. "We want to capture the fervor you guys have in your government and your business community and have them advise us how to get that done in Seattle," he said.

The Astros situation appears murky. Owner John McMullen offered the team for sale in November and has not found local buyers. But there are at least two Houston-area groups that have expressed interest, according to Houston media reports. McMullen has reportedly also spoken in past months with Rich DeVos, who headed Orlando's failed expansion bid.

McMullen wants to sell the team, but not the Houston Astrodome or the lease to keep the team there, both of which he also owns.

McMullen and Louis Sussman, the broker handling the sale, declined comment after their appearance before the ownership committee. Fred Kuhlmann, who chairs that panel, would say only that his group heard a report "concerning (McMullen's) efforts to locate purchasers in the Houston area."

What McMullen told the group is that he is "having trouble selling the club," according to Texas Rangers general partner George W. Bush, a member of the committee. Asked if McMullen sought permission to look for ownership outside the Houston area for a buyer, Bush said: "I have no comment on that."

Baseball is traditionally against franchise moves, and Vincent said they can be considered only under "dire extreme circumstances." He also said that because baseball has an antitrust exemption it can control the relocation of its franchises, unlike the NFL, where owners have moved teams on their own.

Porter declined to say what teams his group may have contacted. While acknowledging that the current climate in baseball is against franchise moves, he said there is hope.

"If, in fact, there are some of baseball's brethren who get into financial trouble and someone says, "I can't compete, I've got to move,' I'm not so sure that the moratorium or the embargo on moving will stay in place forever," Porter said at a press conference.

Hammons, a Sarasota businessman, said he was upset Tampa Bay was bypassed for expansion. "It should not have happened with the right ownership group," he said. "I'll help the community in any way possible that I can to get a team."

But, he said, he would want to play a major role and would have to have a "viable situation with a good chance for success."

He said that might take a while. "As of right now, I'm not receiving the right positive signals from baseball. Let me rephrase that; any positive signals from baseball have not been forthcoming."

_ Staff writers Thomas C. Tobin and Bruce Lowitt contributed to this report.

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