Rick Dodge, an assistant city manager of St. Petersburg, Fla., has worked for 10 years to bring a major league baseball team to the Gulf Coast of Florida. Now, like hopeful civic officials in five other U.S. cities, he faces one last maddening week of waiting. "I'm trying to keep my anxiety level lower than my excitement level," says Dodge. On June 12, baseball commissioner Fay Vincent is expected to announce which two cities will be awarded franchises—at a fee of $95 million each—as the two expansion teams that will join the National League in the 1993 season. For Dodge the anticipation is unbearable. "What do I do when I go home at night?" he says. "I drink. I pray."
The cocktails are going down and the prayers going up in each of the six cities on the National League's list: Buffalo, Denver, Miami, Orlando, Tampa-St. Petersburg and Washington, D.C. The expansion will be baseball's first since the American League added Toronto and Seattle in 1977 and, according to Vincent, the last in this century. The verdict will be rendered after the four-man expansion committee, headed by Douglas Danforth, chairman of the Pirates, makes its recommendation to baseball's 26 owners shortly before June 12. The committee's recommendation is expected to be readily ratified by the owners.
A few of the details of expansion were expected to be clarified early this week, when Vincent was to announce his decisions on two subjects. First, he was to determine whether American League teams will receive some of the $190 million in franchise fees. Sources have speculated that the American League will get one third of the money and the National League two thirds. Second, Vincent was to announce whether American League teams will contribute players to the pool for the expansion draft. It has been predicted that the American League will provide one third of the players.
But there has been no official tip-off as to who the lucky two will be. In fact, one committee insider says that the decision "could switch directions more than once in the next week." So the guessing game continues. "All six cities did outstanding jobs [in their presentations to the expansion committee]," Danforth says. That's about as much as you'll get from the diplomatic Danforth. The committee's efforts to guard its secrets would do the CIA proud, but they have left a swirl of questions to be pondered. Here are 15.
1. Who will win? The clear leaders down the stretch are Miami, Denver and Tampa-St. Pete, in that order. Orlando and Washington are behind by six runs in the bottom of the ninth; Buffalo trails by 10.
2. If Miami gets a franchise, can fans buy highlight tapes at the ballpark from the Blockbuster Video concession stand? Yes, if Wayne Huizenga says so. Huizenga is the chairman of Blockbuster Entertainment, the nation's largest video chain retailer; he is also the sole financier in the Miami effort to land a team. In the past two years, he has purchased 15% of the Miami Dolphins and 50% of Joe Robbie Stadium, home of the Dolphins and, he hopes, future home of a Miami baseball team. The $95 million entry fee will barely dent Huizenga's assets, and that's one reason baseball likes him. The powers that be in baseball like having one man in charge, and Huizenga is definitely in charge in Miami.
3. What's the connection between Blockbuster Video and Danforth? Carl Barger is president of the Pirates. Barger also is on Blockbuster's board of directors and owns 102,000 shares of its stock. Barger and Huizenga have been friends for 20 years. Barger's law firm has done work for Blockbuster. Blockbuster is the exclusive retailer for Major League Baseball Home Video. Blockbuster is a sponsor on ESPN, which broadcasts baseball. Given that Barger works for Danforth and that Danforth has an awful lot to say about who gets a team, isn't this relationship rather cozy? "Mr. Barger would do nothing to risk the integrity of baseball or his relationship with baseball," says Don Smiley, vice-president of South Florida Big League Baseball, Inc., which operates Huizenga's campaign. "Mr. Barger's being on the board is neutral, at best, and possibly a negative, because the relationship has to be kept at arm's length."
A negative? Right, and Ryne Sandberg will be left unprotected in the expansion draft. While there's nothing illicit about the Huizenga-Barger-Danforth connection, it's not a negative for Miami.
4. Since the NBA already has the Miami Heat, will the baseball team be named the Miami Rain? Actually, it will be named the Miami Humidity so that local fans can say, "It's not the Heat that's so bad, it's the Humidity." But it's Miami's rain that prompts Dodge, the competitor from the other side of Florida, to point out that the Class A Miami Miracle had a total of 49 rainouts in 1988, '89 and '90, while the average for major league teams in those years was two rainouts per season. Smiley cites a study showing that on Atlanta's 81 home dates in 1990 it got a half inch less rain than Miami did on those same dates, and the Braves had only four rainouts.
Moreover, says one American League owner, a team can't play in Florida's stifling summer heat without a domed park. It doesn't matter, he says, if the Miami team plays 90% to 95% of its games at night, as it plans to do. The theory is that Miami would suffer the plight of the Texas Rangers, who every year seem to wilt in the high heat of Arlington Stadium.
5. Since Tampa-St. Pete already has a domed stadium, isn't that a plus? Not necessarily. In recent years, major league baseball—not to mention fans and players—has stressed a preference for open-air ballparks with grass fields. So why did St. Petersburg build the Suncoast Dome?
"Floridians love air-conditioning more than they love their wives," says Dodge. "The state didn't start to develop until air-conditioning came along. The biggest event at [domeless] Tampa Stadium recently was a rally for General Norman Schwarzkopf, and only 28,000 people went. Floridians don't go out in the heat of the day. If they don't go out for Norman Schwarzkopf, do you think they'll go out 81 times a year for baseball?"
6. If Tampa-St. Pete doesn't get a baseball team, who will play in the Suncoast Dome? The Seattle Mariners will. Or some other discontented franchise. At least that's a theory suggested by some observers: Tampa-St. Pete, with a stadium and all the amenities in place to take in a troubled team immediately, is a very attractive relocation option for baseball to have at the ready. So having a shiny new stadium could, oddly enough, work against the Tampa-St. Pete expansion effort.
7. And what do folks in Seattle think about the Mariners moving to St. Pete? "We're already starting to hear it," says Seattle principal owner Jeff Smulyan of the rumor that his club will jump to one of the cities that doesn't get a team. "What happens is, other communities get so excited looking at our [small] local TV contract, our [weak] corporate community support and the [poor] relationship we've had with our government, and they say, 'Hey, we can do better than that.' "
Smulyan says he has no intentions of moving—but he's also a smart businessman. Sources say he's having difficulty paying the bills, because his local TV contract pays so little. And despite a recent surge in Mariners attendance, baseball just isn't a big deal in recreation-rich Seattle. Though Vincent frowns on the idea of franchise moves, he also says he would not prevent one if economics dictated a relocation.
8. Where does Orlando stand in this Floridian frenzy? With a lot of cash and not much chance. Richard DeVos, the man attempting to bring a major league team to Orlando, is a cofounder of Amway. According to Forbes, DeVos is worth $1.3 billion, making him easily the wealthiest of the expansion financiers. But he entered the race a little too late, which prevented the Orlando group from getting properly prepared.
The group does, however, have a name: the SunRays. And the SunRays already have a manager, former major league catcher Bob Boone. Unfortunately, the team doesn't have a proper place to play. The SunRays would have to play one season and maybe more at Baseball City, the spring training facility of the Kansas City Royals. It's a nice little park—7,000 seats expandable to 25,000—but it's not a big league stadium, and sources say the expansion committee finds that a drawback. The Orlando group says it is prepared to build a baseball palace that could be ready by 1994. But Orlando is still caught in a squeeze between the other two Florida cities, meaning the SunRays probably won't shine in this century.
9. Is the American League happy about the National League possibly taking two Florida cities? No, but there's not much the American League can do about it. Throughout discussions on expansion, American League owners have contended that the National League should not be able to put both teams in Florida, considered the most lucrative untapped marketplace for the majors. But that's up to the expansion committee, which is made up exclusively of National Leaguers, and sources say that neither the American League owners nor Vincent will attempt to block a Florida-Florida decision.
10. If baseball doesn't go for a double-dip in Florida, why will it go to Denver? Vincent once said that expansion would go "where baseball isn't," and baseball isn't anywhere near Denver. A Denver franchise would be the only big league team within a 600-mile radius, and the only one in the Mountain time zone. One owner in the National League West says he would prefer Denver to Florida because it would shorten travel and save money. Night games in Denver would start at 6:35 Pacific time; night games in Florida would begin at 4:35 Pacific time. West Coast teams say that 4:35 p.m. games could hurt their TV ratings. On the other hand, night games in Denver would start at 9:35 Eastern time, which wouldn't be favorable to East Coast teams.
11. Just how far will a baseball fan drive to see a game in Denver? Denver boosters trumpet the fact that there are nearly three million people within a 100-mile radius of the city and contend that this will be a regional team. But will people from New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas pack up the kids and drive 200 to 300 miles to watch expansion ball?
The same concern existed in Kansas City when the Royals set up shop there as an expansion team in 1969. "During the vacation months of June, July and August, we get a high percentage of our fans from over 150 miles away," says Dennis Cryder, the Royals' vice-president for marketing and broadcasting. "During those months, you can look at 10 cars in the parking lot and see license plates from Iowa, Arkansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma. We'd be hard-pressed to draw 2.2 million [as K.C. did in 1990] without support from fringe states."
The Denver team would play its first two years at Mile High Stadium, which would hold 70,000 for baseball. A longtime supporter of minor league ball, Denver figures to fill a lot of those seats for the major league version on novelty alone. And the Denver team is ahead of the game with two rumors already afloat: that its uniforms will be purple and that its manager will be Whitey Herzog.
12. How far do Washington fans have to drive to see a game in Baltimore? Not far enough. Washington's weakness is that it's too close to where baseball is. The Orioles get 25% of their fans from the D.C. area, and Baltimore's new stadium, which will open in 1992, is only 27 miles from Washington's Capital Beltway, 20 minutes closer than Memorial Stadium, the O's present home. Washington's chances are further diminished by the fact that it doesn't have the one big financier, like Miami's Huizenga or Buffalo's Bob Rich.
13. Is Bob Rich? Not rich enough. Rich heads the expansion effort in Buffalo, owns the Triple A Buffalo Bisons and has a beautiful stadium and terrific fans. His chances of landing a major league baseball team seemed solid until Dec. 15, 1990, when a letter from Rich appeared in The Buffalo News. It read in part that he wanted to bring a team to Buffalo but that "we do not believe in baseball at any cost."
Says Bison general manager Mike Billoni, "We can afford to get into it [expansion], but with spiraling salaries and the possible decrease of future TV revenue, we questioned whether the area could afford what ticket prices would look like down the road. The interest in major league baseball is still here, but we enjoy what we have, and it's at a reasonable price." Rich has stated that he remains interested in purchasing an existing team and relocating it in Buffalo, but the expansion push is, for all intents and purposes, dead.
14. Can an expansion team survive in baseball's current marketplace? It certainly won't be easy. In addition to the $95 million ante, a new club will have to spend another $35 million in start-up costs on player salaries, front-office costs, the farm system, uniforms, equipment, etc. That's a $130 million hole right from the start. Compare that with baseball's last expansion in 1977, when Toronto's expansion fee was $7 million and Seattle's was $6 million. "It's much more difficult to start an expansion team today than it was in '77," says Blue Jay vice-president Pat Gillick, who has been with Toronto since its inception. "There's so much financial pressure on owners and general managers. Baseball is not a big company; it's not a big industry. It straps you to have to pay $95 million."
If baseball were flourishing financially, money wouldn't be such a huge worry. But with CBS and ESPN unhappy over their current four-year contracts, the prospect of diminished TV revenues beginning in 1994 looms large. Player costs, of course, have soared and show few signs of abating. Says one American League owner, "We're established, with a decent talent base and fan base, and we're having problems. I can't imagine having to start an expansion team at this time."
Gillick says his payroll in Toronto the first year was $760,000. Today the average salary is more than $600,000. "I can't see these expansion teams getting away with less than a $10 million payroll [which would be the league's lowest]," Gillick says. "And you can't win with a payroll like that. You have to be prepared to lose 500 games over five years just to get competitive. That's tough to swallow."
15. How bad will the expansion teams be? Bad. Real bad. "Baseball is watered down as it is," says Pirate pitching coach Ray Miller. "With the pitchers that will be out there after expansion, Tony Gwynn will hit .400."
Here's an imaginary 25-man roster for an expansion team, assuming American League participation in the draft. Ladies and gentlemen, the 1993 Miami Waves. C: Joel Skinner, Mackey Sasser. 1B: Todd Benzinger, Gene Larkin. 2B: Jerry Browne, Mike Sharperson. SS: Juan Bell. 3B: Jack Howell, Dale Sveum. OF: Pete Incaviglia, Dwight Smith, Glenn Braggs, Chris Gwynn, Daryl Boston, Dan Pasqua. Starting pitchers: Pascual Perez, Melido Perez, Dana Kiecker, Fernando Valenzuela, Mike Morgan. Relievers: Mike Jackson, Don Carman, Juan Berenguer, Greg Cadaret, Wes Gardner.
Would you pay $130 million for such a team? Somebody will, and gladly.