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Bypassed bay hopes once again

You're dubious. I understand. After all, we are Tampa Bay.

How many notches has Major League Baseball carved into our civic carcass? Is it six times or 66 that Tampa Bay, in pursuit of a ThunderDome franchise, has been teased by MLB's ownership lords, then tormented?

But now, our community heart re-valved, Tampa Bay again knocks at baseball's door. We're smiling. Kissing up. Kneeling if we have to. Bussing the rings of MLB owners, even Wayne Huizenga.

Expansion is hinted again. Also, two or three existing teams might be ripe for relocating. Tampa Bay woos one more time. We have roses in one hand, candy in the other. As if our neighborhood had never been shortchanged, cheated, lied to, misled or bamboozled.

It's probably now or never.

If we don't get the next available MLB franchise, I suggest that Tampa Bay forget baseball and put sporting resources into joining Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Lebanon and Monaco in an International Camel-Racing League. Put me down to cover the road games in Monte Carlo.

But honestly, I think it's going to work. MLB and Tampa Bay will marry at last. Bake the cake. Hire a preacher. Sew the gowns. Rent the tux.

I know, I know I've had such baseball thoughts six times before, or is it 66? But it's like Elizabeth Taylor, every time there's a fresh romance. Liz and I, we always think, "This is the time it's going to work."

MLB's dons have been meeting in Arizona. They named an expansion committee, which presumably will lead to anointing a 29th and a 30th franchise. It seems stacked for Tampa Bay.

George Steinbrenner (Yankees) lives among us. Jerry Reinsdorf (White Sox) owes Tampa Bay a bigger favor than Tom Arnold owes Roseanne. Stan Kasten (Atlanta) is our southern brother. Stan Cook (Cubs) is a pal of Tampa Bay's primo hardball chaser, Vince Naimoli.

There's more.

Bill Giles (Phillies) is the unofficial springtime mayor of Clearwater. John Harrington (Red Sox) took over Boston leadership from Haywood Sullivan, a former University of Florida football quarterback who has forever been Tampa Bay friendly. I'm not sure about Richard Jacobs (Indians), but his team is training in Winter Haven, where one of Naimoli's baseball partners, Mark Bostick, has considerable hometown voice.

Only way we could be in better shape would be if the committee included David Fischer, Sandy Freedman, Rick Dodge, Naimoli and me.

It'd seem a no-brainer, if Tampa Bay didn't have so many scars, so many charred memories and more paranoia than all the world's figure skaters combined. We're heavily favored, along with Phoenix, but I'll rest easy when lineup cards are taped to a ThunderDome dugout wall.

Naming a MLB expansion committee is going to coax every North American diamond wannabe out of hibernation, including Washington, Buffalo, Vancouver and our mouse-earred friends from Orlando. It'll get frisky. There will be more than two armies in this war.

But do we have a choice?

It's too much to ask MLB to execute with the stunning expansion expediency of the National Hockey League, whose owners took a bathroom break and then returned to their meeting table to decide, "Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and Huizenga Panthers of Florida, you're in!"

MLB isn't likely to expand until a new agreement is achieved with the players' union. That'll get nasty before it gets cured. If there is accord before the midseason All-Star break, it'll be an upset.

I'm not giving up on relocation. Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Montreal and maybe other existing franchises are deep in the dollar doldrums. Owners are wondering if 1990s baseball can work in those straining, medium-sized markets.

But, no, I've not forgotten Tampa Bay trauma resulting from failed swipe attempts involving the Giants, Mariners, White Sox, Rangers, Twins and the National League's recent expansion.

It'll help lots if Congress finds the guts to toss MLB's long-unmerited antitrust exemption. U.S. Senators and Reps have scheduled March 21 hearings in St. Petersburg.

If antitrust is squashed, there'll be nothing to impede future franchise moves. Several teams now labor in virtual baseball salt mines, knowing gold mines await in Phoenix, Tampa Bay and perhaps elsewhere.

The game is on again.