Cold, hard cash gave edge to Miami, Denver

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

In the end, this National League expansion race didn't hing on time zones or climates or appeasements for the American League. Miami's rain didn't matter. Neither did Colorado's high elevation and thin air.

And, much as St. Petersburg would like to find consolation in an American League conspiracy theory, the AL's stated desire to keep one of the Florida markets for itself "never entered the committee's thinking," according to expansion commitee member Bill Giles.

What it did come down to is what these big business decisions almost always revolve around -- cold, hard cash. Follow the green, find a new National League team.

"I think it's pretty obvious that they [the expansion committee members] were most concerned about financial stability," said one highly-placed source close to the expansion committee. "Once they got down to the final cities, the markets and the stadiums took a back seat to questions about the ownership groups."

In the final stages, the only three legitimate contenders (of the six finalists) were Miami, Denver and St. Petersburg, according to the source and two other baseball insiders.

Washington had held on long enough to be one of the "final four," according to the source, but when the D.C. group was still floundering financially in early April, it fell behind in the race.

Disappointed St. Petersburg managing partner Stephen Porter steadfastly maintained that "capital was not the reason" his group failed in its bid. But Giles -- although refusing to name St. Petersburg as the third-place city -- conceded that money was the bottom line.

"I would say of the three leaders in the clubhouse, so to speak, that the one of the three leaders that lost did so because of ownership problems," Giles said.

As time pressed closer to the National League's self-imposed June 12 deadline, commissioner Fay Vincent said frequently that ownership was by far the most important criteria in this game.

Expansion committee chairman Douglas Danforth, also chairman of the Pittsburgh Pirates, publicly remarked on Miami owner Wayne Huizenga's ability to pay cold, hard cash and St. Petersburg's need to finance its team.

Giles, president of the Philadelphia Phillies, told the Daily News a week ago that the cities considered "the best markets" hadn't necessarily finished as the favorites because other factors (such as ownership strength) didn't weigh down on their side.

Washington (seventh) and St. Petersburg (13th) had the top TV markets among the competitors; when expansion first began, St. Petersburg was also considered to have the strongest market overall.

"Ownership really needs to be broken down into two phases -- quality of people and the amount of money put in," Giles said. "It's important to us how much financing a group needs."

From the very beginning of this expansion battle, Huizenga stood patiently -- pen poised, checkbook open -- ready to fill in as many zeroes as necessary to nab a major league baseball team. The Blockbuster Video magnate said loudly and frequently that he did not want, nor need, anyone else to invest in the team.

Add in his best-buddy relationship with Pirates president Carl Barger and Blockbuster's already strong ties to baseball (the company is Major League Baseball's official video distributor) and Huizenga became the clear-cut leader, the standard by which other bidders would unhappily find themselves judged.

According to the league's stated expansion rules, a potential franchise could finance up to 40 percent of its expansion fee and start up costs. But when Huizenga offered to ante up the entire franchise fee in cash, the game changed.

"It wouldn't surprise me if their committee saw what Huizenga had and started stacking everybody up to him," one American League owner said. "We [the AL owners] certainly considered him the easiest one for us to approve."

The turning point in the second-city battle came in early March, when the Adolph Coors Brewing Co. threw $30 million into the Denver bid, bringing the total capital to $101 million ($6 million over the franchise fee, but still short of the estimated $125 total projected cost) and, just as importantly, linking the Colorado bid to a major advertiser -- a locally rooted, baseball-interested advertiser, no less.

At the same time, St. Petersburg, despite an ownership group worth a reported $1.5 billion, continued to insist on financing the allowable 40 percent of the fees, one league source said.

The outcome was simple. The National League owners looked around them and saw a nationwide financial crunch and rapidly escalating player salaries. Then they looked at Huizenga and Coors and saw dollar signs.

"It was fairly easy to narrow it down to four after our visitations," Giles said. "It became very difficult to pick the two of the four at first, but two of the final four kind of eliminated themselves as time went on."

Buffalo sank itself early -- frozen foods king Robert Rich, the owner of the Triple A Bisons, wrote an open letter to The Buffalo News in December, warning the citizens of Buffalo not to get their hopes up. The local TV market (39th nationally) and other factors had left him second-guessing Buffalo's ability to support major league baseball, Rich wrote.

Orlando's Richard DeVos, the billionaire founder of Amway, had a Huizenga-sized checkbook, but no firm stadium plans and a market that was dwarfed by same-state competitors Miami and St. Pete.

Washington's group hinged its bid on the hope of finding a big-name, deep-pocketed investor, but admitted to The Washington Post in April that the financing wasn't going as planned. For the last month, the ownership group had seemed resigned to its losing role, even if the city's inhabitants continued to buy up season-ticket reservations with vain hope.

"Obviously, I am disappointed that the nation's capital was not selected for a major league baseball team," Washington mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon said. "Everyone involved in this effort, including the thousands of fans who bought season tickets, worked very diligently to make baseball a reality in Washington, D.C."

But the biggest loser, without question, will be St. Petersburg. This city has been attempting to lure baseball for decades -- the last big effort coming in June 1988, when the Chicago White Sox had all but sealed a deal to move when the Illinois legislature voted to put up state money for the new Comiskey Park. Public money financed the $110 million Suncoast Dome, which was built specifically for baseball and will now stand empty on the edge of downtown.

"I feel worse than anybody," Porter said. "We worked extremely hard on this. I felt we covered all the bases."

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