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A new pitch, a hopeful spin

Four years ago, a group of civic leaders and businessmen walked confidently into a New York meeting room, told a panel of Major League Baseball officials why Tampa Bay should be awarded an expansion team, and strode out thinking they had the franchise.

"The committee was exceptionally warm, very positive and very reassuring at the conclusion," St. Petersburg city administrator Rick Dodge recalled last week. "I got a very direct message from one individual that we shouldn't worry, that we were in great shape and that things should play out very favorably for our interests. That was an unexpected comment and one that certainly lit us up."

The ensuing nine months turned their smiles _ and their worlds _ upside down. Tampa Bay's ownership situation unraveled, South Florida's H. Wayne Huizenga opened his checkbook, and a Colorado group finally massaged its ownership into an acceptable form. Tampa Bay didn't get its team, and those words of reassurance proved to be worth as much as Florida White Sox and Tampa Bay Giants T-shirts are today.

On Tuesday in Chicago, a different group of bay area leaders will appear before a different baseball expansion committee and again try to convince the group to award Tampa Bay a team. More than the faces have changed.

For many reasons _ including reduced competition, an enlarged market, an improved ownership group, and enhanced relations with baseball executives _ area leaders and current and former baseball officials say Tampa Bay is in better position to succeed than during the 1990-91 National League expansion.

"I would think so," former NL president Bill White said last week.

"If I would use three words to describe where we were back then, they would be well-prepared, determined and hopeful," Dodge said. "Now I would describe us as overprepared, determined and seasoned. I think we're confident we have the best to offer Major League Baseball as a business transaction. And the facts that we have to serve up, that they're already familiar with, make us feel very positive about the outcome. We're much more than hopeful."

There are some distinct similarities between 1990 and now. Tampa Bay is again considered at least a co-favorite for a team. And Tampa Bay is again receiving reassurance from baseball officials.

There are also some significant differences. In 1990, the NL had already committed to expand, meaning all Tampa Bay and any other community had to do was finish in the top two. This time there is no such promise. The owners say only that they are studying the issue, leaving Tampa Bay and four other groups in the position of lobbying for teams that may not be awarded. Dodge, in fact, says his biggest concern is that owners decide to not add teams.

Nonetheless, the Tampa Bay group is going full throttle, operating under the assumption that the owners will decide to expand by two teams for the 1997 or 1998 season, with a decision announced within a few months. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained," said Vince Naimoli, head of the Tampa Bay ownership group. "It's logical something has to happen."

As they proceed, the signs do appear promising. With teams already in Miami and Denver, the ranks of Tampa Bay's competitors have been considerably thinned _ to only Phoenix, Orlando and northern Virginia. The ThunderDome, which had only recently opened and was essentially unused in September 1990, has proven a successful site for a variety of large events. The Tampa Bay area has grown in size and market viability. Season-ticket reservations have increased from 22,000 to more than 32,000. There is the potential of a huge lawsuit stemming from the aborted deal for the Giants. Tampa Bay has a few more friends inside baseball. And the Tampa Bay leaders know a little bit more about what they're doing.

"I think it's a much different situation," said Dodge, the only major player involved in both efforts. "We'd been through the (luring of the) White Sox previous to the NL effort, but we were less seasoned than we are now. We're now more veteran road warriors. We've been through a lot. The whole area has been through a lot.

"I think we have a much better understanding not of just what goes on in baseball, but the nature and way we've been communicated with is more than likely the way other candidates who have been accepted before have been communicated with."

An example: Dodge said baseball officials asked when it would be convenient to make a presentation, rather than issue a date.

The biggest and most significant difference between the 1990 effort and the current one, according to baseball officials, is Naimoli and his ownership group.

"Naimoli's a helluva businessman," said White, who presided over the 1991 expansion process and Tampa Bay's unsuccessful 1992 bid for the San Francisco Giants. "I like Naimoli. He may bring to a franchise more than any other owner brings because of his overall background in business and finance. He had a complete plan on how to make a Tampa Bay franchise a success. There were no questions we asked him that he couldn't answer."

At the time of the 1990 presentations, there were three ownership groups representing Tampa Bay _ a long-standing Tampa group led by Frank Morsani, a new group financed by businessmen Thomas Hammons and Abe Gosman, and a group headed by Washington, D.C., attorney Stephen Porter, a part-owner of the minor-league St. Petersburg Cardinals, and backed by brothers Allen and Sidney Kohl, lifelong friends of Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig.

The committee selected the Porter group to represent Tampa Bay. "They are the kind of people you'd like to have own a baseball team," Selig gushed at the time.

But something went wrong. Sometime between the September 1990 presentation and the June 1991 decision, the Kohls changed their financial commitment. Dodge and other city officials claimed the Kohls decided to walk away from the deal. Porter claimed the Kohls didn't alter their own investment but did not bring in other investors to fill out the group as they had promised.

In any event, as Porter said last week, "We lost." Baseball officials selected Miami and Denver and said the Tampa Bay group didn't have enough equity.

As this mess unfolded, including a last-minute scramble by Tampa Bay leaders to find additional investors, Naimoli sat home in Tampa watching. In October 1989 he was on the front page of the papers for receiving more than $20-million when his glass container company was bought out, but no one called him to invest a penny.

Was he surprised? "In a way," he said. "I guess they didn't know I had an interest."

Later in 1991, Naimoli expressed that interest and began working with St. Petersburg civic leader Jack Critchfield to develop a local ownership group. When he walks in the door Tuesday, he will deliver to the expansion committee a diverse partnership of individual and corporate investors with a net worth in excess of $4-billion.

"We have a very strong group," Naimoli said. "Not to take anything away from the past group, but we have a very significant group of very significant size."

Dodge, the city steward, said he has absolutely no concerns about Naimoli's cash or character.

"One of the key elements the other 28 owners will make their decision on is, "Is this someone we're comfortable with?'

" Dodge said. "

"Yes, you have a great market. Yes, you have a great facility. Yes, you have great fan support. But is this somebody I want to sit around the table with for the next 20 years?' The answer to that question about Vince is emphatically yes.

"They like him and they want him. And that ingredient is an ingredient we never had before."