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Baseball will study policy on team moves

There are no trucks backed up to office doors in Seattle or Cleveland, and no one is rushing to get a deal on turf for the Florida Suncoast Dome just yet. But Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent said Thursday he is willing to take a look at his hard-line stance against franchise relocations and said the policy could change _ a result that would be good for Tampa Bay baseball interests seeking an existing team.

Vincent formed a three-man committee, to be headed by Minnesota Twins owner Carl Pohlad, to study the issue and report back in 60 days.

What Vincent wants, he said, is answers.

"Am I correct? Is my position sound? Should I re-think it? And if it's re-thought, with what consequence? It's just such an important subject and there are a number of clubs worried about their viability in their communities. I feel a little bit like the fellow at the gate, with his finger in the dike. I'm convinced that I'm correct, but I'm certainly willing to be persuaded otherwise," Vincent said.

"The goal is to re-think the policy on transfers and try to come up with some thoughtful insights on how to deal with this problem. It's a serious problem."

Vincent's move comes as Tampa Bay and the three other expansion losers are all interested to some extent in luring a team. Several existing teams _ Vincent identified Seattle, Cleveland and Houston as "problem franchises" _ are facing potential situations where a transfer might be a solution.

St. Petersburg assistant city manager Rick Dodge said Vincent's decision was good both for cities seeking new clubs and teams looking to move. "I think that's encouraging news," Dodge said from St. Petersburg. "We've been saying we want to proceed in the appropriate way."

Pohlad said there is a need to determine what baseball's relocation procedures should be.

Pohlad has spoken highly of the Tampa Bay area and said Thursday that Florida is "more than likely to be a two-team state." But he also stepped in to buy the Twins and keep them in Minnesota after a Tampa group had purchased 42 percent of the team with an eye toward moving it south.

He said he comes to the job with no preconceived ideas. The other two owners have not been appointed.

Vincent's policy has been that franchises can be moved only in "dire circumstances."

He developed what he called "harsh criteria" a team had to meet: substantial losses over a long period, a substandard stadium with no solution in sight, overt steps from the city that it is not interested in baseball _ such as voting down a stadium issue _ and will no longer be supportive, and no sign of a revival.

"I think there are cities, and owners, really, who are concerned about the viability of their business," Vincent said. "It's no secret that Seattle is one. I've said that I'm concerned about Seattle and the ownership in Seattle is concerned about Seattle and there have been some things in Seattle that are a major concern." Mariners chairman Jeff Smulyan, however, said he has no plans to move.

Vincent said last summer the Cleveland Indians had met the criteria, but Indians owners are now optimistic that a new stadium will be built.

Houston owner John McMullen is trying to sell the Astros and said he would prefer to keep them in Houston, but said fan support is bad and he has no buyers. He reportedly asked baseball's ownership committee for permission to seek outside investors but was told to continue looking in Houston.

At the conclusion of baseball's quarterly meeting, Vincent said no sale is imminent and no permission has been granted to seek outside buyers.

Philadelphia Phillies president Bill Giles said there are no National League teams with legitimate reasons to move, including the Astros.

With these three uncertain franchise situations, reports that up to nine teams are available for purchase, and four baseball-hungry communities lined up to bid, Vincent wants to review baseball's position.

"What is clear to me is there is a crying need to review this policy, which I have adopted relatively strongly but which I want very seriously to test," he said.

Vincent said he is uncomfortable making judgments about which teams face serious enough problems to be allowed to relocate.

Baseball, because of the power of its commissioner and exemption from anti-trust laws, can control franchise moves, unlike the National Football League and National Basketball Association, Vincent said.

Without that control, Vincent said, there would be chaos if teams could move anytime teams falter at the gate or owners become disenchanted.

"If there were no restraints on ownership in baseball, there would certainly be a number of potential transfers and I'm concerned about it," he said.

In creating the panel, Vincent is seeking advice on how the game's owners want to handle the matter.

"Am I smart enough to be able to decide who should be able to move and why not? I have my limitations."