Buy Me Into The Ball Game

For $95 million, here's what you get: the newest - and undoubtedly worst - team in baseball, the chance to be called an idiot by every sportscaster in town, and that dreaded phone call from Aunt Roseanne asking to sing the national anthem. Plus the privilege of leasing a stadium, building a farm system and paying a squad of other teams' castoffs - all at an additional cost of about $40 million.

Why, then, would anyone possibly want one of the two teams scheduled to join the National League in 1993? Just ask the boosters of the six cities - Buffalo, Denver, Miami, Orlando, Tampa Bay and Washington - that are finalists for the major leagues' first expansion since 1977. They'll tell you this isn't simply a matter of owning the local McDonald's franchise. This is baseball - the national pastime, the root of all that's right in America, the reason why Opening Days throughout the land this week are celebrated as the first real sign of spring. "Baseball is an American institution and our region deserves to be represented," says John Antonucci, who leads the Denver ownership syndicate. "It would be a moral outrage for our state not to get at least one of the clubs," intones Sen. Bob Graham of Florida. They both know that snaring a franchise means a city's image becomes major league.

After more than a year of deliberating, incumbent National League owners will decide in June who wins the expansion sweepstakes. For months they've been subjected to the wheedling and cajolery of politicians, investors and civic-pride merchants. So eager are the six cities and their would-be baseball owners that they've tried everything from logo contests to tacky T shirts to season-ticket drives. Tampa-St. Petersburg has already built a $110 million domed stadium for a team it doesn't even have. Fortunately, there has been room for a little humor, too. Citizens of the various towns have suggested such team names as the Buffalo Chips, D.C. Tricky Dickies, Orlando Cepedas, Colorado Flakes and Tampa Bay Polidents.

In the quest to enter the big leagues, the ways of persuasion are many. Good contacts don't hurt. Miami's applicant, H. Wayne Huizenga, is chairman of Blockbuster Entertainment and happens to have the president of the Pittsburgh Pirates on his board. He also has support from one of George Bush's sons, Jeb, who is active in south Florida economic development. The Tampa Bay partnership includes developers Allen and Sidney Kohl, brothers of a U.S. senator and close friends of Bud Selig, owner of the Milwaukee Brewers.

Sometimes the sell is soft. In Denver, the downtown chimes master played "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" for the National League envoys who visited last month. Sometimes the pitch is ridiculous. The Miami group propositioned the committee with a treacly video hosted for some reason by ex-Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese. It lauds the area's weather, boasts that "we eat out three times as often as other Floridians" and notes Miami's large Hispanic population. "What better way to celebrate the 500th birthday of the discovery of the New World" than to field a new team, Griese asks.

In addition to smiles and salesmanship, there is old-fashioned political arm-twisting. And there are plenty of sore arms--particularly after sessions with the U.S. Senate Task Force on Baseball Expansion. The committee, according to chairman Tim Wirth of (surprise!) Colorado, attempts to use "powers of persuasion" to convince baseball owners to create more teams. Translation: listen up or we'll repeal your exemption from the antitrust laws - which means you'll no longer get to act like a monopoly. Trouble is, as Florida's Graham recognizes, that threat "is like a nuclear bomb. You can only use it once." For now Wirth and Graham say they're pleased the owners are finally giving in. They'd better pray their states prevail, because Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent has made it clear he foresees no further expansion until the next century.

While politicking and posturing are useful tactics, it is dollars that will talk sense to the current overlords of the game. When baseball last expanded 14 years ago, with Toronto and Seattle joining the American League, the fee was $7 million. The industry then had revenues of about $300 million; today, baseball takes in $1.2 billion, largely because of a fat television deal with CBS. That explains in part the appeal of owning a club: it costs a lot, but the return beats any CD. The New York Mets, for example, were bought for $3.75 million in l962, $21 million in 1980 and $100 million in 1986.

Yet, by most accountings, baseball faces an economic reckoning. Average player salaries now hover around $880,000 annually (up 47 percent from a year ago). Smaller markets like Pittsburgh say they'll soon be priced into extinction. "We're the dark horse in this race and it's a real shame," says Bob Rich Jr., the frozen-foods tycoon who leads Buffalo's expansion effort. "If things don't change, you'll be watching New York play Chicago and L.A. That's it." The $190 million bounty that National League owners will reap from expansion provides only a short fix, especially since there will be more teams dividing the broadcast pie. "From an economic view alone," says Vincent, "expansion probably doesn't make sense."

Baseball's hope is that by adding strong markets, it can widen its fan base and increase TV ratings. That is why baseball so covets Florida, the fourth most populous state. By putting two teams there - where there are none - it could exploit that booming region much as it did California in the 1950s when the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants moved west. In Miami (gateway to a Latin American audience), Tampa Bay (a large TV market) or Orlando (the fastest-growing U.S. city), baseball would be getting better demographics than in some of its existing towns. The problem is that the 14 American League owners may holler foul if they get squeezed out of such virgin territory. Since seven American League owners together can exercise a veto, the compromise may be to give the AL a cut of the $190 million fees in return for approving two Florida sites.

If that doesn't work, or if geographical diversity is required, Denver or Washington is likeliest to get the second team. Denver proclaims itself the "time zone without a team" and says it will attract fans from the entire Rocky Mountain area, much the way St. Louis has made itself a thriving regional team despite a relatively small population. Washington is the largest market of the six finalists, but it's near Baltimore and - remember those old Washington Senators? - already has blown two chances at keeping a team.

The decisive factor may be personal. Baseball owners view themselves as part of an exclusive club, and it's not just anybody who gets into the Raccoon Lodge. Owners compete against one another, but in the end they're partners in the enterprise. In that sense, the National League will be looking for strong, conservative pillars of the community. That could hurt the chances of the Denver, Orlando and Tampa syndicates, which are bankrolled by out-of-towners.

So much talk of money amuses the quintessential baseball owner, Peter O'Malley. "Owning a baseball team should be a good investment," he explains. "But it's also supposed to be fun." That's easy for him to say. His Los Angeles Dodgers are the most successful franchise in the game.

Baseball pooh-bahs offer no hints on which two cities will get a franchise. You're all such strong contenders. We know better.

Magnifico! First, Broward, Dade and Palm Beach counties. Then all of Latin America! Fidel, you get cable?

Time zone without a team. Home-run heaven in thin air. Problem: will fans come all the way from Wyoming?

They've already built a dome. Makes sense: it's 96 degrees. So why does the league want to play outdoors?

Slugger demographics and everybody's sentimental choice. But baseball's been a two-time loser in the capital.

Even with huge tourist base, doesn't match up against other towns in the humidity belt. Can Mickey throw a curveball?

Blizzardball. They love their Bisons in Triple-A, but that's not enough. Move a million New Yorkers up. Bring blankets.