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Baseball's roads all lead to Suncoast

The talk has been quiet and unofficial, but the possibility exists. With baseball owners seeking massive change during upcoming labor talks with the players, an obvious byproduct could be expansion. For Tampa Bay, it seems to be the best shot to finally land a major-league team.

But the man hired by the owners to conduct those negotiations said Thursday there is another way Tampa Bay could end up with a team.

Richard Ravitch, president of the Player Relations Committee, said if owners cannot successfully get the players to accept changes to the game's economic structure, there could be several teams _ "a lot of them" _ scurrying to find a home in the Florida Suncoast Dome.

"I'm giving a speech to the (Associated Press) sports editors in New Orleans next week and I'm going to call it "The Road Race to Tampa-St. Pete,' " Ravitch said. "Because if our efforts fail then you're going to see a massive race to Tampa-St. Pete.

"Under all circumstances, you guys are going to come out fine. You can't lose. I mean that."

For Tampa Bay fans, who have lived through attempts to bring in six existing teams, the prospects of another possible relocation are not attractive. Last fall, owners rejected a Tampa Bay deal to buy and move the San Francisco Giants because of a long-standing policy of franchise stability.

"My reaction to having the chief negotiator for baseball give that kind of positive indication of Tampa Bay in terms of expansion or relocation is that it's certainly a very good sign," St. Petersburg deputy city administrator Rick Dodge said. "At the same time, we've had a history of lots of very good signs. Until something more official comes out, we won't get too excited."

Ravitch, who has been immersed in studying baseball's finances since signing on in November 1991, said the current economic picture endangers the future of several teams.

Revenues from national TV contracts are decreasing, some teams are faced with declining attendance and player salaries continue to rise. Among teams considered most financially troubled: Milwaukee, Oakland, Pittsburgh, San Diego and Seattle.

Expansion is viewed by some owners as a way to cure some of the problems. It would provide a tangible tradeoff (of 50 new jobs) for the union in the negotiations. There would be an influx of money from up-front payments by the new teams. And there would be two new markets that (based on the success in Colorado and Florida) should generate plenty of revenue.

"Every time I bring (expansion) up, it seems like everyone nods their heads," Phillies owner Bill Giles said.

"There's a strong possibility of expansion in the not too distant future, within the next three years," said Jackie Autry, Angels executive vice president. "It depends on our labor negotiations."

Ravitch said he does not anticipate expansion being placed on the negotiating table by either side.

"I have no expectation right now of offering it," Ravitch said. "Given baseball's current economic situation, with well over half the teams losing money in 1993, I don't believe expansion under this economic system is a realistic possibility. It can only be discussed in the context of a totally new economic system in baseball."

Brewers owner Bud Selig, chairman of baseball's Executive Council, said Ravitch's focus is on the labor situation and that a decision to expand would be made by the owners.

Ravitch admitted he is not privy to those deliberations, but said that unless the owners and players first agree on a financial system that works for both, expansion won't work.

"Nobody knows more about the economics about these teams than I do," he said. "Baseball is not ready to distribute its central fund revenue to more clubs given the severe financial squeeze come clubs are currently in."

What Ravitch is trying to do to rectify that is two-fold.

He is trying to get the owners to agree to share certain revenues _ such as local TV fees _ among themselves. That, he says, would guarantee that each team could afford a payroll that would allow it to be competitive. Then, he will propose to the players union that a specific percentage of baseball's gross revenues be dedicated to player salaries (the NBA currently uses 53 percent) and that a team salary cap be established. That way, each team will know its payroll costs in advance. The union is expected to oppose the changes.