Kirk just 2-for-5 game from AAA team


When it comes to baseball and business, Peter Kirk says he normally doesn't allow himself the luxury of optimism. But yesterday, after his quest to bring a Triple A team to Maryland passed another checkpoint, the Columbia real estate developer couldn't help himself.

"I think our chances are better than 50-50 that we'll get an expansion team," Kirk said.

Then, throwing caution to the wind, he added, "I think our chances are better than 90 percent we'll have a Triple A team one way or another."

This was after a Triple A expansion committee released a short list of five finalists that included Kirk's proposed team in Prince George's County along with Birmingham, Ala., Charlotte, N.C., Tulsa, Okla., and Ottawa, Canada.

And it was after Larry Schmittou, chairman of that expansion committee, labeled the Maryland entry a "longshot" to land one of two Triple A expansion franchises for the 1993 season.

Schmittou, president of the Nashville Sounds, said his committee still has to be convinced of Maryland's financial commitment to a new, $9 million stadium in Bowie, to be built at the intersection of routes 301 and 50. Even though Kirk claims a fan base of 3 million people within a 30-minute drive, Schmittou questions the area's support for minor-league baseball. "I don't buy [a fan base of] 3 million people because some of them are purely Oriole people," Schmittou said.

Kirk has no such reservations, though. He has a minor-league empire and a proven track record in Maryland with a Single A franchise in Frederick and a Double A team in Hagerstown.

"I wouldn't use the word longshot," Kirk said. "I would say we're underdogs because it's baseball tradition to move up the ladder from Double A to Triple A. They have three excellent Double A applicants [Birmingham, Charlotte and Tulsa] who have shown they know how to operate successful teams.

"But I would point out the demographics in P.G. County. The population density and income is three times the size of Frederick. And our Class A team in Frederick outdrew all three Double A teams last year."

Not only that, but Kirk says Frederick outdrew nine of 26 Triple A franchises a year ago.

Kirk's argument notwithstanding, the question of fan support and financial commitment are issues his group, the Maryland Baseball Limited Partnership, must address by an Aug. 16 deadline. The Triple A expansion committee will call in all chips on that date and make a recommendation to Triple A membership for a final vote on Sept. 28.

"Those cities that alleviate the concerns and questions of the committee ultimately will be the final two," said Mike Tamburro, president of the Pawtucket Red Sox and member of the nine-man Triple A committee.

Acknowledging strong ownership, large market and good location, Tamburro said the Maryland group has serious questions to answer.

"The big concern is the ballpark," he said. "Is the funding in place? Will it be in place? Will the structure be completed by opening day, 1993?

"They've got some hurdles. They need to prove to us there is strong support in the Bowie area. A season ticket drive certainly would help."

Kirk said that letters from Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Prince George's County officials confirming the political commitment are in the mail. For the last two days, Kirk and his people met with the HOK architectural firm that designed the Orioles' new stadium in Camden Yards. "Within 30 days we'll be able to unveil drawings of the stadium," he said.

The total package for bringing a team to P.G. County ("I guarantee the team won't be called Annapolis," Kirk said) is $15 million, including construction of the stadium, a $5 million franchise fee and start-up costs. Kirk's group will pay $7.5 million of that sum. The state will contribute $4.5 million and P.G. County $3 million.

"We have $250,000 in our budget to do the architectural design," said Delegate Charles "Buzz" Ryan, D-P.G. County. "And there is a commitment from the legislature and county executive in P.G. County."

Ryan said Bowie's population of 45,000 and a population of 740,000 in the county will provide a strong fan base.

The three Double A cities seeking a Triple A franchise all must reach a buyout agreement with their current leagues. Charlotte and Birmingham play in the Southern League, and Tulsa in the Texas League. Ottawa, which will build a $21 million stadium if it gets a franchise, fielded an International League team from 1951 through 1954.

Still to be resolved is the relocation of Denver's Triple A franchise, with the Rocky Mountain arrival of major-league baseball in 1993. That franchise could be sold or moved.

And, according to Kirk, there are other Triple A franchises available.

"We're very familiar with the process for acquiring an existing team and relocating it," he said. "We've already done it [moving a Double A franchise from Williamsport, Pa., to Hagerstown]."

Schmittou said he never thought Kirk's group would make the first cut, from 17 candidates to nine, let alone outlasting Jacksonville, Fla., Memphis, Tenn., Quad Cities, Ill., or South Bend, Ind., in the cut from nine to five.

"But Peter did a lot of work. He brought them from nowhere to where they are."

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