PHOENIX -- Take your pick: St. Louis either has outmaneuvered Baltimore in the NFL expansion derby or has taken a step toward a financial quagmire that will hurt the St. Louis effort.
The debate was taking place at the NFL's annual March meetings yesterday in the wake of James Busch Orthwein's decision to offer to buy Victor Kiam's 51 percent majority interest in the New England Patriots.
Orthwein, a major stockholder in Anheuser-Busch Companies and the money man behind St. Louis' expansion drive, said he wants to own the team on an interim basis before he sells the Patriots and returns to the St. Louis effort.
St. Louis is considered Baltimore's main competition for the "old city" expansion team.
Orthwein isn't attending the meeting, but another member of St. Louis' expansion effort, Fran Murray, also a Patriots minority owner who is owed $38 million by Kiam, was positive about the proposed deal.
"I think it's going to be a lot of fun," Murray said, even though the Patriots have severe financial problems.
Murray apparently thinks Orthwein, by taking over the troubled franchise, can buy goodwill from the NFL for St. Louis, helping its expansion chances.
Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, said: "I think there's a certain amount of assumption on the part of the people of St. Louis that they're going to generate good public relations from trying to bail out the NFL."
But commissioner Paul Tagliabue said: "I don't think the Orthwein offer will have any effect at all on the St. Louis expansion bid. Jim Orthwein is known to me, known to people throughout the league. He's a business executive with a national record. I think it's very positive if it's satisfactory to Victor Kiam."
Although Kiam hasn't accepted the offer -- the club would cost $110 million, $23.5 million in immediate cash -- Murray said he hoped to wrap up an agreement in the next day or two. Kiam declined to comment.
Murray said he thinks Orthwein can find a buyer for the Patriots once the turmoil caused by Kiam's financial problems is solved.
Murray also seemed confident that he can talk Massachusetts officials into passing legislation to build a new stadium for the Patriots to replace antiquated Foxboro Stadium.
"My charge will be to immediately take advantage of the momentum that the commissioner has initiated with the governor [William F. Weld] and the mayor [Raymond L. Flynn of Boston] . . . and see if quickly legislation can be put in place," Murray said.
If Murray can pull if off -- he led the drive to pass stadium legislation in St. Louis after the Cardinals moved to Phoenix -- the value of the New England franchise should increase, and Orthwein should be able to sell it.
But if the stadium legislation fails, Orthwein could be stuck with a team that is losing money. An alternative would be trying to move the team, but Tagliabue said yesterday he has an "ironclad" agreement that Orthwein won't do that.
Belgrad said he was skeptical that Murray can talk Massachusetts officials into a new stadium. Belgrad said it was unlikely that the twin stadium bill approved by the Maryland legislature in 1987 could pass today because of the poor economy.
"It's inconceivable to me that he's going to talk elected officials to vote for public funds for a sports franchise," Belgrad said.
Belgrad conceded St. Louis officials think this is a positive move, but said: "I don't read it as bailing out the NFL. I think Fran Murray was already in over his head in New England. They're bailing out Fran Murray. They're not bailing out the NFL."
Should the league decide to expand by this fall -- there's speculation that expansion could be delayed -- Orthwein and Murray would have a problem if the Patriots couldn't be sold.
Tagliabue said: "Obviously, they can't own two teams at the same time."
As the debate continues, the NFL today will make its first cut in the number of expansion cities. But it's likely that the league will cut only the three cities that didn't pay the $100,000 application fee -- Honolulu, Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and Nashville, Tenn. That would leave eight cities still in the race, including Baltimore.
The expansion committee will have a meeting in the morning before presenting its recommendation to the owners.
NOTES: Tagliabue said that, though the draft expires after this season in the collective bargaining agreement signed in 1982, the league will hold a draft in 1993, even if it doesn't get an agreement with the NFL Players Association. That's likely to spark another lawsuit by the players. . . . Tagliabue may have to table the issue of accepting a reduction in television money, because he doesn't have the votes to pass it.
. . . Tagliabue said there's a "strong majority" in favor of instant replay, even though it passed by the competition committee by only 4-3. . . . Tagliabue said the NFL isn't worried about the plan by Charlotte, N.C., to finance its stadium with private funds. He said the meeting last week with Charlotte officials was only part of the process of having meetings with all the expansion teams.