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Baseball owners talk, Tampa Bay waits

Major-league baseball owners will vote this week in Denver on expanding the 1994 playoffs by an extra round that would include second-place teams in each division.

They also will talk about _ but are not ready to act on _ adopting inter-league play and realigning each league into three divisions, possibly for the 1995 season. And as they get into those discussions, there will be talk about another form of expansion _ the addition of two teams.

Several owners have said that a move to three divisions could precipitate a two-team expansion in the near future, providing five teams for each division. And, some owners say, one of those two new teams likely would be headed to Tampa Bay, allowing area leaders to (finally!) take the vacancy sign off the Florida Suncoast Dome.

"I think that could happen," said Peter Magowan, managing partner of the San Francisco Giants. "No one told me when it will happen, but I don't think it would take that long. Maybe in 1995 you could have it.

"I'd favor five-team divisions. That would allow for two teams of expansion and I think Tampa (Bay) has to be right up there."

Colorado Rockies chairman Jerry McMorris said that within the next few years "I think you'll see baseball expand to 30 teams" and additional teams could be added after that.

"You can figure out some obvious candidates for the next two (teams), with St. Petersburg at the top of the list," McMorris told the Denver Post. "When you say two teams, the second is more difficult than the first."

Owners say there has been little or no "official" talk about expansion, that there are too many other pressing issues with which to deal.

But as owners discuss how to facilitate a move to three divisions; how to accommodate inter-league play; how to offset the effect of reduced revenues from the new television deal; how to settle on systems of revenue sharing among themselves and with the players; and then, perhaps most importantly, how to get the players union to accept a new player compensation system, expansion becomes an integral part of possible solutions.

It is not hard to imagine a scenario where the owners offer a two-team expansion (and thus 50 more jobs) to induce the union to accept a new pay system that includes revenue sharing and a salary cap.

The net result is that expansion _ and thus Tampa Bay's latest baseball dream _ may well become part of the complicated and volatile collective bargaining process.

"I think more than likely it will be," said Rick Dodge, a St. Petersburg deputy city administrator and the city's top baseball official.

Those negotiations are expected to begin next month and, if history is a guide, likely will continue until the scheduled start of spring training or, pessimists say, may drag on to delay the start of the 1994 season.

"There has not been any official talk about expansion," Philadelphia Phillies owner Bill Giles said. "I think people basically feel in the back of their minds that it is going to happen, but nobody wants to get serious about the discussions because it will involve labor."

For Tampa Bay fans and leaders, unsuccessful in seven previous attempts to land a major-league team, word of the latest possibilities is greeted with cautious optimism. Under a best-case scenario, owners settle the labor contract without a protracted battle and early next year announce plans to expand by 1995 as part of the settlement.

"A move to the divisional changes and the expanded playoffs format are very clear signs of future expansion at an early date," Dodge said.

New York Yankees principal owner George Steinbrenner, a Tampa resident, said he is working hard to bring a team to his home area. "I'm encouraged by the prospects of baseball coming here," Steinbrenner said. "I'm hopeful for it and I want to see it in the worst way."

Tampa businessman Vince Naimoli, head of the group seeking a team for the Dome, remains confident a franchise will arrive soon.

"We're going to get baseball," he said last week.

Naimoli has added investors to his group since his unsuccessful 1992 attempt to buy the Giants and has stayed in close and frequent contact with many baseball officials to help the cause.

Expansion, Naimoli said, "is still our best hope with the best odds."

He continues to hear rumors about financially troubled teams that could be looking to sell, but after the Giants debacle Naimoli has a different strategy: "My response if there is a team available to move is that baseball has to vote on the relocation, then tell me it's approved and I'll jump on a plane and go negotiate for the team."

If enough owners favor expansion, Naimoli may not have to respond. Several arguments can be made for adding teams:

If the three-division format is adopted, each league would have two divisions with five teams and one with four. "That's not really an ideal situation," Magowan said. Other leagues, such as the NFL, have operated with unbalanced divisions, but it makes for greater scheduling ease and competitive balance to have an equal number of teams in each division.

A move to three divisions may be the biggest indicator that expansion is on deck.

"If I was a Tampa Bay fan," Giles said, "I'd root for three divisions."

Under terms of the new national television contracts, each team is projected to receive approximately $6-million in revenues next season, a decrease of about $8-million from the current contract. By voting to add two teams, the owners could make up some of the deficit from the expansion fees. Florida and Colorado paid $95-million each, and future expansion teams likely would cost in excess of $100-million. At that price, each of the existing 28 clubs would receive a payment in excess of $7-million.

Despite concerns of some owners, the current expansion teams have been a tremendous success. The Marlins and Rockies rank among the top seven major-league teams in attendance and among the top five in sales of licensed merchandise. While the Rockies have struggled on the field, the Marlins have a better record than 10 teams. Several owners said the overall success of the two new teams bodes well for future expansion.

Congress has mounted a serious challenge to baseball's antitrust exemption and a quick expansion conceivably could reduce that pressure. And baseball officials still face a bevy of legal actions stemming from Naimoli's attempt to buy the Giants. Awarding a team to Tampa Bay would be one way to make some of those legal problems go away.

If the owners do decide to expand, Tampa Bay likely would receive an American League team with the National League reportedly eyeing Phoenix.

A different look

With baseball owners considering a variety of radical realignments, the game could have a vastly different look by 1995. Here's one possible alignment:

American League

East Central West

Blue Jays Brewers Angels

Orioles Indians Athletics

Red Sox Tigers Mariners

TAMPA BAY Twins Rangers

Yankees White Sox Royals

National League

East Central West

Expos Astros Dodgers

Marlins Braves Giants

Mets Cardinals Padres

Phillies Cubs PHOENIX

Pirates Reds Rockies