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All hail! All hail! The prince draws near

The famously friendly Dick Greco was suddenly missing in action. Some grumpy stranger had taken his place. "It's horrible, what you do, what you write," Tampa's mayor said to me Monday. "Horrible."

All I did was ask him about his friendship with a convicted felon, Eddie DeBartolo Jr.

You might not have heard. Eddie is coming to town.

His arrival was announced by Tampa's affable town crier, Tampa Tribune sports columnist and friend of everybody important, Tom McEwen. "Good. Good deal," Tom said in his column last Friday about DeBartolo.

It's bad enough that Eddie DeBartolo (and the business he inherited from his father) is responsible for the way much of Florida looks. Everywhere we transplants went, the DeBartolos of Ohio followed, building mall after mall after mall, parking lot after lot after lot.

Greco was in the thick of it. He worked for the DeBartolos for 21 years, between his first stint as mayor and this one. "We basically grew up together," the mayor said of himself and Eddie Jr.

DeBartolo, who is also known as The Prince for the gazillions bestowed on him by his father, is on two years' federal probation for failing to report a $400,000 bribe he paid in bundles of $1,000 bills to former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards for his help in getting a gambling license.

But his first love was the San Francisco 49ers, who won five Super Bowls when DeBartolo was in the front office.

(Why oh why does everything in the world come down to football?)

DeBartolo, as famous for losing his temper as for picking up the check, lavished so much on his players that he is credited with forcing the creation of the NFL's salary cap.

To hear Greco and McEwen tell it, Eddie is coming to town riding high. He told McEwen he'll be starting a charitable foundation. Greco said he'd be back into real estate.

Greco was so ecstatic about his friend's arrival that you could almost hear the orchestra tuning up as he borrowed from Hello, Dolly! when he talked to McEwen. "Welcome back, Eddie," Dick the Mayor crooned. "You are back where you belong."

But life is not all roses for Eddie the Prince. He is in the middle of negotiating his way out of a nasty court fight with his sister that will almost certainly mean forfeiting his beloved football team to her. He's also on suspension from the NFL. Although he'll probably get much of the family real estate, his sister also contends he owes the family $94-million.

(I know. You're deeply moved and ready to pass the hat for Eddie the Prince.)

His spokesman says DeBartolo should have his past put behind him, but all this, the fight with his sister, the suspension from the league, is the result of his Louisiana caper.

I said to Greco that it was one thing to be tight with DeBartolo if Greco were a private citizen, but entirely another now that he's mayor. Didn't he worry what strangers might think?

That was what set him off. "I'm his friend and the mayor," Greco said. "Eddie will be a good citizen, I assure you."

Points to the mayor for his loyalty, but a man is judged partly by the company he keeps.

Tell you what, though. Tampa isn't just a city. It's one big work release program.

DeBartolo's warm welcome by official Tampa is very much in the spirit of the place. Steinbrenner. Bilzerian. You name 'em. As long as they have big bank accounts, official Tampa is happy to look the other way at character flaws, criminal indictments and other human foibles. Not in your average car thief or crack head, naturally. They're the exception to the rule.

So consider this an exercise in looking the other way. While you're at it, please don't trip over the red carpet they've rolled out for Eddie The Prince.