It's the Devil Rays, Diamondbacks


PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The wait finally is over for the long-suffering baseball fans of Tampa/St. Petersburg, Fla., and Phoenix. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Arizona Diamondbacks will join the major leagues in 1998.

The announcement came yesterday at Major League Baseball's quarterly owners meeting, after a unanimous vote of the 28 clubs, but the admittance of both franchises was no surprise.

Tampa/St. Petersburg was a lock to be included in the latest round of expansion, and Diamondbacks founder Jerry Colangelo has been at the top of the game's potential ownership list for years. The only question was whether the expansion committee would make any commitment to the two ownership groups that are trying to put a franchise in Northern Virginia.

No such commitment was made, but the current expansion is part of a two-tiered process that could proceed with the addition of two more teams as early as next year. One of the groups from Northern Virginia appears to be the early favorite to get one of those teams, unless an existing club attempts to relocate to the Washington area before the expansion committee makes a decision.

Colangelo and the group headed by Tampa businessman Vincent Naimoli will pay $130 million for each franchise, but that figure represents the present-day value of the deal. The actual cash price will be about $155 million by the time each group has paid the expansion fee in full.

That's $60 million more than baseball charged the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins in 1991, but there were no complaints from the newest members of the troubled industry.

"If there was a greater day in the history of Tampa Bay, I don't know what it is," Naimoli said.

Tampa/St. Petersburg has been trying to acquire a franchise since the early 1980s, when the area took a major gamble and built the Florida Suncoast Dome. Since then, the 43,000-seat stadium -- which recently changed its name to ThunderDome -- has been used by several teams to leverage their cities for new ballparks or improved lease arrangements.

The area nearly acquired the San Francisco Giants three years ago, but the deal was delayed until a Bay Area buyer stepped in and agreed to keep the team in California.

"We didn't wait as long as Tampa-St. Pete, but we're as excited as they are," said Colangelo, president of the NBA's Phoenix Suns.

Phoenix waited only five years for a franchise, but it was a stadium-financing deadline by Maricopa County that pushed major-league owners to make a decision on expansion before the resolution of baseball's work stoppage. The county has agreed to pay most of the cost to build a $275 million, retractable-roof facility, but funding for the project would have been canceled if a franchise wasn't awarded by April 1.

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