For Tampa-St. Pete, bases loaded, 3 outs

ROSENTHAL KEN

November 12, 1992|By ROSENTHAL KEN

For sheer heartbreak, nothing can match the trauma of a team packing up and leaving in the middle of the night. It's different for baseball fans in Tampa-St. Petersburg. The moving vans keep approaching -- and always get turned around.

Which is the greater anguish, losing a team or never getting one? Civic leaders in Baltimore and Tampa-St. Pete could stage a lively debate on that topic. The prize would be anything the winner desired -- so long as it wasn't an expansion team.

Die-hard Colts fans might disagree, but Tampa-St. Pete now ranks as the most scorned region in the wide world of sports. The National League's 9-4 vote blocking the sale of the San Francisco Giants to a Florida group makes it seven rejections in nine years.

Tampa-St. Pete was courted by five AL West clubs -- Oakland, Minnesota, Texas, Chicago and Seattle -- and also was a finalist for an NL expansion team. All it did this time was produce an offer $15 million better than the one that will keep the Giants in San Francisco.

Baseball doesn't mind the fruits of its blackmail -- a new stadium lease in Oakland, a new ballpark in Chicago, a new ownership group in Seattle. But for Tampa-St. Pete, it's always "maybe next time."

"They're in a worse position than we are," said Herb Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority. "They apparently had an agreement to move the team, subject to the owners' approval, and baseball pulled the rug out from under them.

"I never want to be in that position. There's got to be a lot of resentment, a lot of hard feelings, a lot of bitterness about the process. For all practical purposes, they had the team there -- as long as the [National League] owners approved."

Naturally, the owners didn't approve -- even though Bay area voters have rejected four proposals to replace Candlestick Park, even though the Giants have drawn 2 million only once in 35 years. Tampa-St. Pete can't get a team San Francisco doesn't want. It's a wonderful world.

Baseball's debt to Tampa-St. Pete dates to 1984, when former commissioner Bowie Kuhn promised "future consideration" for a franchise after a group of Tampa investors backed off a proposed buyout of Minnesota. The owners, of course, always suffer memory lapse over such things.

For all their talk of "stability" -- there hasn't been a franchise shift since the Washington Senators became the Texas Rangers in 1972 -- the only relevant issue, as usual, appears to be the size of the television market.

San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose ranks fifth, Tampa-St. Pete 16th. Never mind that the Giants share their market with the A's, or that Tampa-St. Pete promises 30,000 season-ticket holders. The bottom line evidently favors San Francisco. The owners certainly prefer the restaurants.

Meanwhile, St. Petersburg is stuck with the $138 million Suncoast Dome, a stadium it financed with tax dollars and built without a commitment from baseball. Former commissioner Peter Ueberroth warned the project might be a mistake. But Indianapolis got away with the same stunt in football, didn't it?

Yes, and Baltimore lost a team. The difference is, the NFL couldn't block the move without violating federal antitrust laws. Baseball received an antitrust exemption under a 1922 Supreme Court ruling. It operates without threat of government interference.

Thus, Baltimore probably has a better chance of luring an existing NFL team than Tampa-St. Pete does of getting an existing baseball team. Belgrad and Co. tried that route with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1988. Owner Bill Bidwill moved the team to Phoenix instead.

"I don't try to build expectations unnecessarily," Belgrad said. "But the kind of vibes I got from Bill Bidwill, particularly the last time he visited Baltimore, gave me confidence that within a week we were going to have the Cardinals.

"When the serious negotiations began taking place in Phoenix, no one had to tell us what that meant. It was an especially big letdown. He led us to believe we were going to be the chosen city. That's not nearly what St. Pete has gone through. They've got to be tremendously disillusioned."

They are. Florida Sen. Connie Mack said he will ask Congress to rescind baseball's antitrust exemption. St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer said: "They've damaged us spiritually, and they've damaged us financially. We're not going to take this lying down."

The lawsuits are coming, but no team.

Take heart, Baltimore.

It could be worse.

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