DETROIT -- Major-league owners are pushing hard for a deal that would keep the Pittsburgh Pirates from moving, despite speculation that the club will be sold and relocated to Northern Virginia.
National League president Len Coleman said he is "guardedly optimistic" that a deal can be struck that would transfer ownership of the franchise to an investment group being formed by newspaper heir Kevin McClatchy, but it will have to happen before a negotiating window closes Sept. 22.
"I think there is a good-faith effort by the McClatchy group to make this happen and by the Pirates and Major League Baseball to move this process forward," Coleman told reporters after yesterday's National League meeting in Detroit. "Our hope is that the McClatchy group would be successful."
Major-league owners are understandably reluctant to endorse the first franchise relocation since the Washington Senators moved to Texas after the 1971 season, but a potential ownership group headed by Washington businessman William Collins is poised to make a bid for the Pirates if the McClatchy effort falls through.
Collins would like to buy the team and move it temporarily into RFK Stadium while a stadium is constructed in Northern Virginia, but he said yesterday that he is in favor of the effort to keep the team in Pittsburgh.
"I've said all these many months that Pittsburgh has debated this thing that obviously there is a tremendous tradition of professional baseball in Pittsburgh," Collins said. "If they can find someone to keep the team in Pittsburgh, I would be all for it."
If the McClatchy deal does not materialize, the Collins group would like to complete the purchase quickly and open play at RFK Stadium next season, though that time frame seems optimistic. Major League Baseball's lengthy approval process probably would push Opening Day at RFK back to 1997.
There is even a chance that baseball ownership would step in at that point and make another attempt to keep the team in Pittsburgh, as it did when the San Francisco Giants were on the verge of moving to St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1992.
It appears to be a no-lose situation for Collins, who stands an excellent chance of winning one of the two expansion franchises that Major League Baseball is expected to award in 1997 or '98.
"Speaking for myself, I think that whenever you have a team that has been in a city as long as the Pirates, you would like to keep it there," Cole
man said, "but I think relationships are reciprocal. I think the team has a responsibility to the community and the community has a responsibility to the team."
No doubt, the Pirates and Major League Baseball hope that the threat of relocation may prod city officials in Pittsburgh to move forward on a new, baseball-only stadium.
Yesterday, McClatchy agreed on a lease that allows him to move the team if money for a new stadium isn't secured by 2000.
Orioles owner Peter Angelos has voiced his resistance to the concept of an expansion team in Northern Virginia and would be just as unhappy to see the Pirates move there. He has a monopoly on the Baltimore/Washington baseball market and says he doesn't expect that to change in the near future.
"I wouldn't think so," Angelos said. "I think the Orioles are sufficient for the front yard, the back yard and the side yard."
Of course, relocating the Pirates to the Washington area might be the way that the other owners punish him for his unwillingness to go along with their hard-line labor strategy, but everyone was all smiles at the American League meeting yesterday. The meeting opened with the other AL owners lauding Angelos for the great job his franchise did celebrating Cal Ripken's pursuit of Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record.
There was little said yesterday about a competing group from Florida that is interested in moving the Pirates to Orlando.
The quarterly owners meeting concludes today with a joint ownership session during which Major League Baseball is expected to approve the sale of the Oakland Athletics to Steve Schott and Ken Hofmann and discuss the game's continuing labor crisis.
In other developments yesterday:
* American League owners discussed the pending sale of a controlling interest in the California Angels to Walt Disney Co., but said they are not close to an approval vote.
* Toronto Blue Jays president Paul Beeston briefed AL owners on efforts to sell that club, but no particulars were released.
* AL owners split 7-7 in a referendum on the designated hitter rule. No rule change is expected in the near future.
* Both NL and AL owners heard a report on efforts to reduce the average time of games. Since a concerted effort was made to speed up games, AL games have been shortened by an average of six minutes and NL games by seven minutes.
* AL owners discussed attempts to initiate stadium construction in Milwaukee, Seattle, Detroit and Minnesota.