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For baseball to stay, savvy must step up to the plate

Funny how quickly friends can turn into, well, something else.

Stephen Porter was once a Tampa Bay baseball ally _ a relationship that quickly cooled when he failed to deliver the money needed to get one of the two expansion teams awarded by Major League Baseball a decade ago.

And now he is sniffing at the edges of the Devil Rays franchise. He says he wants to buy into the team but swears he has no interest in moving it to Washington, D.C., where is part of an effort to land a team.

In the politics of baseball, where rock-solid deals and contracts quickly turn into excuses and lawsuits, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker was right to growl and stamp his foot at Porter.

Unless he wants to be known as the politician who lost baseball, Baker and his successors are going to have to become even more sophisticated in protecting the franchise and the substantial public investment that brought it here.

Someone who did well in deflecting poachers was Frank Jordan. As mayor of San Francisco, he was a player when a Tampa Bay group tried to buy the Giants in 1992 and bring them here.

I was among the reporters who stood in San Francisco City Hall and watched him deliver confident statements that the team would stay.

Publicly, he was smooth, as was befitting a city that fancies itself on the cutting edge of cool. Behind the scenes, he was the gun who went after Major League Baseball officials to persuade them to turn down Tampa Bay and approve a local sale of the team, even though it was less attractive.

"He really pushed hard," Giants executive Larry Baer told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1995."He was actively going to Major League Baseball and doing it in a way that was extremely aggressive."

While Jordan showed leadership in keeping the team, the same cannot be said about the second half of the equation _ figuring out a way to build a new stadium for the team, widely acknowledged as the reason the franchise was in trouble. If you had ever been to a game in Candlestick Park, wishing for a parka and gloves, you would know why attendance was flagging.

Jordan didn't solve the stadium problem. Besieged by other difficulties, he was booted from office in 1995. However, the next administration helped create a ballpark deal the public would buy into.

Most of the cost was paid by private sources, including a $140-million loan taken out by the team. The public contribution was billed as $26-million of improvements around the park, which was to be paid by increased tax revenues. Now, the Giants play in Pacific Bell Park, a $319-million stadium near the bay. Earmuffs no longer are standard equipment.

The Trop is the elephant in the living room that no one wants to acknowledge. It might seem like yesterday that the dome opened, but it will not be long before talk about replacing it turns into a roar. It surely will not outlive the 24 years of taxpayer debt remaining on it.

The $138-million original price tag for the dome, breathtaking at the time, was augmented by $80-million in improvements before opening day. Yet, it's going to seem like a bargain when the next estimates come in.

As recently as last month, Rick Mussett, the city's chief development administrator, said a new stadium with a retractable roof "would cost several hundred million dollars and cannot be justified just because other cities are building such stadiums."

Fans, or anyone who believes the team ought to stay for economic reasons, should hope the city's thinking has evolved beyond that.

It might take _ gasp! _ regional cooperation if a new stadium is ever built. It can be done. The question is, do we have people with the political savvy to make it happen?

It's going to take more than shaking a stick at the latest interloper.