The National League announced yesterday that it was postponing its selection of the two expansion cities until later this summer, partly because it needs more time to examine the finances of the expansion finalists and partly to give Denver and St. Petersburg an opportunity to improve their ownership bids.
Miami remains the expansion committee's No. 1 candidate. The status of H. Wayne Huizenga, the Blockbuster Entertainment chairman who plans to pay the $95 million expansion fee in cash, "has not changed," according to expansion committee chairman Douglas Danforth, who sat in on Tuesday's ownership committee meeting by telephone. "That's still the case. We feel he's very solid."
The four-man expansion committee has been working since last September piecing together data on the six finalists -- Miami, St. Petersburg, Denver, Orlando, Washington and Buffalo. Baseball sources said Tuesday that Miami and Denver are the top choices of that committee. Danforth would not confirm that yesterday but did say the expansion committee's work was complete.
That put the process in the hands of ownership committee members, whose mission is to scrutinize any prospective baseball ownership group. They must approve the finances of the recommended expansion teams before formal recommendations go to the 26 major-league owners.
The original timetable called for a decision by Sept. 30. The expansion committee moved up the target date to next Wednesday, but after the ownership committee met for 2 1/2 hours Tuesday afternoon the decision was delayed. The league announced yesterday that it hopes for a decision before Sept. 30.
St. Louis Cardinals president Fred Kuhlmann, the chairman of the ownership committee, said yesterday that the owners could well vote on the issue at the All-Star Game on July 9 in Toronto.
"It's in the best interests of baseball to put this thing to bed," Kuhlmann said. "Not only to let the selected cities know, but for baseball to get various actions started for the cities awarded a franchise. There's nothing to be gained by keeping people in the air. It's just not healthy."
U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla., expressed frustration at the delay.
"The National League has all the facts on expansion," Mack said. "Its representatives have made all the necessary visits. There's no need for extra innings.
"Baseball continues to take the hearts of baseball enthusiasts -- especially in Florida -- on a roller-coaster ride of emotions."
Kuhlmann said his committee, which on Tuesday also reviewed the ongoing sales of the Houston and Montreal franchises, needed more time.
"We didn't have a comfort level, we didn't feel comfortable acting on it in that short an order," he said.
But one baseball insider said the ownership structures in Denver and St. Petersburg, which require various levels of financing for the estimated $130 million to $140 million price tag to field an expansion team, have not settled into place.
"One reason for the delay is that both groups need their financing shored up," said the insider. "They're not bulletproof."
Asked whether the delicate nature of the ownerships in St. Pete and Denver had contributed to the delay, Danforth said: "No, that's not the principal reason. It's primarily workload. They want more time than just five or six days to come down on this."