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Handshake didn't really seal ball deal

Pasco County officials shook hands with a New York Yankees executive Friday afternoon on a deal to bring the team's spring training camp and minor league ball club to East Pasco.

On Monday afternoon, the deal fell apart after the Yankees said their front office was not ready to make a decision after all.

"It's terribly frustrating and I am very disappointed with the way they treated the county," Commission Chairman Mike Wells told fellow commissioners Tuesday night as he announced the news. "It's just not the way to do business."

Other commissioners said they shared the frustration and disappointment.

"It sort of makes us feel like we've been jilted at the altar, especially when we had a handshake and said we had a done deal," Commissioner Ann Hildebrand said.

"It's obvious to me that the Yankees are suffering from lack of leadership," Wells said. As evidence, he cited a Tampa Tribune report indicating that George Steinbrenner, who was barred from managing the Yankees for associating with a gambler, wants to resume control of the team.

The report came at a time when the team is waiting for major-league officials to consider Daniel McCarthy as the team's new managing general partner.

Wells said the Yankees hastily called a meeting with county officials and property owners Friday to discuss the county's offer.

There, Yankees vice president Joseph Molloy "looked me in the eye and shook my hand and said, "We've got a deal,'

" Wells recalled.

In a letter delivered to Wells Monday, Molloy said he had presented Pasco's offer to McCarthy, now the team's acting managing general partner.

"Due to the uncertainty which currently surrounds the control of the partnership, Mr. McCarthy cannot at this time commit to the Pasco proposal by the Feb. 18 deadline," Molloy wrote.

"I wish to emphasize that the proposal itself in no way caused the partnership to arrive at this decision," Molloy added. "On the contrary, the partnership was pleased with the interest Pasco County has shown in the Yankees. Unfortunately, the partnership is currently involved in an uncertain period and therefore is unable to react as quickly to the deadline as you require.

"The Yankees understand the necessity for the imposition of such a deadline and I am sure that had the circumstances been different, the partnership would have given your proposal every consideration," Molloy concluded.

Two landowners had offered to donate the county large parcels of land for the Yankees' complex. One, Henry Douglas, offered 100 acres near Interstate 75 and State Road 52 if the Yankees would buy another 40 acres from him. Another, Saddlebrook developer Pittway Real Estate, offered 100 acres between I-75 and County Road 581.

In addition, county officials proposed pledging 20 years' worth of revenue from Pasco's hotel bed tax to raise $9.5-million for the construction of an 8,000-seat stadium.

Now that the deal has fallen apart, however, officials gave no sign that they want to pursue the Yankees further, but they did not entirely reject the idea of bringing spring training baseball to Pasco.

Commissioner Ed Collins said Arizona's Cactus League still has about a half-dozen teams who might be interested in moving and suggested that the county keep in contact with them.

After his experience with the Yankees, Wells said that, in the future, county officials should insist on dealing with the general operating partner.

"We have to deal with the person who will make the decision," Wells said.

Commissioner Bonnie Zimmer said officials should not rush to decide how to spend the tourist tax, which adds 2 percent to the price of hotel rooms and other short-term accommodations.

"My personal feeling is we should not make any hasty decisions," Zimmer said, commenting that she has been "swamped" with requests for some of the tax revenue from a variety of groups in the county.

Zimmer also said she hoped the Yankees would not try using Pasco to win concessions from Fort Lauderdale, where the team has a spring training lease through 1993.

"If that was their game, I'm very disappointed," she said.

Yankees officials have asked Fort Lauderdale for 100 acres for a larger and more elaborate baseball complex.

The last time the team wanted more space and facilities was in 1989. Back then, Fort Lauderdale and Broward County officials agreed to add an extra field and pay the team's $400,000 hotel bill through 1994.

This time, the city finds itself strapped for cash. City officials are facing the possibility that they may have to lay off 90 city employees and raise taxes, so accommodating the Yankees is out of the question.

"They have indicated to us that they would like to have a larger area than we have available," Fort Lauderdale city manager George Hanbury said Monday.

In Hillsborough County, where the Yankees have a training facility and administrative offices, officials with the Tampa Sports Authority hope to bring the team's spring training camp to Hillsborough.

The authority, however, faces several problems. Unlike Pasco, it has not been able to put together a proposal that includes any money for relocating the team's spring training camp.

Moreover, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have expressed an interest in the property near Tampa Stadium that the Yankees now use, a wrinkle that further complicates the sports authority's efforts.

Information from the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel was used in this report.

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