Major League Baseball moved another step toward adding teams Friday, inviting a Tampa Bay group and four others to make presentations to the expansion committee on Nov.
Groups representing Orlando, Phoenix and two from northern Virginia also have been asked to come to Chicago for the session.
Committee chairman John Harrington said the owners still have not made a decision to add teams and characterized the presentations as preliminary. "We remain at the information-gathering stage," he said in a news release.
But in a later interview, he indicated the presentations are an important step as the owners consider whether to expand.
"We're going to discuss all aspects of it with regard to everybody's package," Harrington said. "We're going to get into their financial information. We want to get to know who their decisionmaker will be. Hopefully that person will be there. We'll get into their background. We'll get into the stadium issue where necessary, to see what's going on or not going on.
"It's on a preliminary basis, but we have very detailed questions to ask. This will get us to another level."
Each groups will be allotted 90 minutes in front of the seven-owner committee _ 30 to make a presentation, 60 to answer questions.
Harrington, CEO of the Boston Red Sox, said he knew of no questions about the Tampa Bay application filed by group leader Vince Naimoli. "I have some questions regarding clarification," he said. "Nothing of any importance."
With the sport idled by the strike and resulting labor standoff, there had been considerable speculation that the owners would put off any talk of expansion.
"We've had a commitment to ourselves as a committee to try and conclude our work and try and make a recommendation to full ownership by the end of the year, and by that I may mean January or February," Harrington said. "We're still on track."
Tampa Bay leaders were pleased with the news. "I think it's a positive sign for us that they've continued to do what they said they would do and look at expansion," group attorney John Higgins said.
Officially, the labor and expansion issues are proceeding on separate tracks. But Harrington indicated the paths are crossing.
The players union previously made a proposal that called for expansion, and Harrington said Friday the owners have introduced the idea informally. "It has been brought up in discussion with them that we would like to have included in the next basic agreement the ability to expand," he said. "They didn't reject that."
Harrington also said it was unlikely _ but not impossible _ that the owners would vote to expand before agreeing on a new labor contract.
"I tend to think people want to go slow on dramatic change like this," he said.
Twenty-seven groups representing 10 communities requested expansion applications this summer. Nine groups, representing seven communities, returned the completed forms and five were chosen to make presentations.
But Harrington said the others _ three from Mexico (Monterrey and Mexico City) and one from Vancouver _ have not been eliminated. "We may do them later. There are complications with international play."
The Tampa Bay group has been ready for months, if not years. A Tampa Bay group was one of six finalists in the 1991 expansion but was passed over for Miami and Denver.
Naimoli, who was traveling Friday on business, said recently the Tampa Bay presentation would be straightforward. Higgins said the final format has not been determined.
"It is fair to say we will make a presentation that focuses on the facts as they exist," Higgins said. "If you put the facts down, they favor the Tampa Bay area _ a season ticket base, an existing facility, a strong ownership group and a long baseball tradition."
Orlando officials, who scrambled to find an owner in time for the application filing deadline, admit they have work to do in the next 11 days to complete their presentation.
"Obviously the time frame has been accelerated and we will respond. We've been working on it some," said Paul Jacobs, Colorado Rockies general counsel and a partner with Orlando lead owner Norton Herrick.
The Phoenix group, which faces an April 1 deadline to secure financing for its stadium, is led by Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo.
One northern Virginia group is led by Washington attorney Bart Fisher, who has made an offer for the San Diego Padres and is pursuing the Oakland A's. The other is led by William Collins, chairman of two wireless communications companies _ FirstPage USA Inc. and New Era Communications Inc. Both plan to build a stadium in northern Virginia.
Harrington said the owners would prefer to expand, but would "consider" relocation of existing teams "if expansion could not be advanced."