Baseball expansion is a hot topic, but when and if it will happen still is uncertain. Some say 1987, some say the 1990s. Some say two teams will be added, some say six. The subject is expected to be on the agenda at baseball's summer meetings in August, unless negotiations with the Major League Players Association are not concluded by then. Nine areas -- Washington, Denver, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Miami, Phoenix, Indianapolis, Vancouver, Buffalo and New Orleans -- are regarded as the most active candidates for teams. Beginning today, Washington Post staff writers describe the efforts of each city. By Gary Pomerantz Washington Post Staff Writer
DENVER -- Early in April, the city of Denver just about blew its baseball cool.
That was when Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, attending the season opener in Cincinnati, said no city as yet was close to being qualified for an expansion team. Ueberroth also noted that Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm "threw the Olympics out" when he was a member of the state legislature, leading the successful fight to have Denver withdraw its bid for the 1976 Winter Games.
The next day, April 9, a front-page headline in the Denver Post sounded the alarm: "Baseball: Denver Strikes Out." The following day, Lamm and Denver Mayor Federico Pena struck back at Ueberroth. Although the commissioner's office subsequently issued a clarification that read, in part -- "We also understand that the governor of Colorado supports the Denver interest in major league baseball" -- Denver was plenty angry.
After all, this is the city that is generally regarded by its competitors and baseball insiders as No. 1 on the expansion list.
"The timing was awful," says Steve Katich, executive director of the Denver Baseball Commission. "It really took us by surprise."
In fact, on the preceding weekend, Denver had hosted a two-game exhibition series between the Seattle Mariners and the Chicago Cubs. It drew a total of 76,000 to Mile High Stadium, including 42,456 on a 38-degree Saturday. Katich said tickets to the games were purchased by fans from as far away as Nebraska, New Mexico, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Kansas, which is the very reason he said a major league baseball team in Denver would more accurately become "a team of the region."
Both the Mariners and the Cubs received checks for $135,000, which left Dean Bonham, a member of the Denver commission and the organizer of the series, saying, "I asked both teams if they had ever received so much money from an exhibition game and both gave unequivocal 'No' answers."
Seattle owner George Argyros, whose team has not drawn well the last few seasons and who had been having problems arranging for a new lease in the Kingdome, even played footsie with Denver. He mentioned how nice it would be if only . . .
It was in this climate, with the baseball mercury rising, that the Ueberroth story and the headline sent Denver into a flabbergasted funk.
"How Gov. Lamm voted on the (1976) Olympics is irrelevant," said Bonham. "It wasn't the governor or the state representatives who voted that down, anyway. You know who it was? The people. They spoke. Major league baseball is an entirely different story. Today, if you took a vote, the vote would be an unqualified 'Yes.' "
With the idea of expansion still blurry, everything is a matter of perception. Members of major league baseball's long-range planning committee are saying little or nothing on the subject, so perception weighs heavily.
The numbers are all here. Denver has a metropolitan population of 1.7 million (it is projected to surpass 2 million by 1990). Arbitron rates it the 19th-best television market in the nation. It has 51,000-seat Mile High Stadium ready, willing and, according to Katich, an estimated $1.5 million of improvements away from being able to accommodate major league baseball.
Denver officials also love to tell about the avid support their city has shown for the National Football League Broncos, who have sold out their last 109 regular-season games, dating to the 1970 season.
City officials talk also of the splendid location of Denver, of how it would be a perfect middle leg on a trip from the West to the Midwest. The nearest major league baseball city (Kansas City) is out of binocular view at 625 miles.
You want to talk about that devilish Rocky Mountain weather? It is the fickle climate that includes occasional snow in both April and September and more than a few raindrops in between.
Well, these Denver baseball folk have an answer for that. A study of the past 10 seasons played by the Denver Bears (now Zephyrs) of the AAA American Association shows there have been only 61 rainouts. "That's only an average of six rainouts per year," said John Dikeou, who owns the Zephyrs along with brothers George and Deno. "We get an afternoon shower, but by 6 o'clock in the evening, it is perfect for baseball."
All right, you say, then let's see you Denver people figure a way to keep that thin Rocky Mountain air from turning each game into a 20-run affair that turns the banjo-hitting Lenn Sakatas into the home run-hitting Dale Murphys.
With a grin, Katich said, "Maybe we'll just build a big green wall and put it out in left field."
The Dikeou brothers have made it clear they would like to become the owners of any future Denver major league baseball team. They purchased the AAA Bears on Dec. 1, 1984, renamed them the Zephyrs and, at the most recent league meetings, published a "Daily Zephyr" report to keep owners abreast of Denver's drive.
"We've got the territorial rights. We've got the team. We've got the stadium," said Dikeou, a real estate entrepreneur. "Now, we're kind of at a standstill."
Lurking somewhere, however, is what one city official termed "the ghost of Marvin Davis." Davis is the Denver oilman/film entrepreneur who in November 1979 agreed to purchase the Oakland A's from then-owner Charles O. Finley for $12 million. The announcement of the sale was made and the pigeons were let loose at last. Denver, it seemed, was in the American League. Davis' office reportedly received nearly 10,000 season ticket commitments in one day.
But the deal fell through due to, among other things, complications with the A's lease with the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. More than five years later, Davis is said to be still interested in buying a major league team for Denver. Davis, listed in the phone book under "Marvin, oil," did not return calls.
Bonham said, "I don't think anybody really knows where Marvin Davis fits in and I think Marvin Davis wants it that way . . . A friend of Davis called me on the phone prior to the winter meetings and said that Marvin Davis told him that he's still interested and will pursue things in his own way."
John Dikeou said he and his brothers bought the AAA team to learn how to manage a baseball franchise. He said he has not talked with Marvin Davis.
"I think the owners will decide whether it's Davis or us or a third group," Dikeou said.
Ueberroth has set three criteria for cities seeking an expansion team: fan support, political support and multiple, grass-roots ownership. Davis is known to want to own a team in Denver by himself. Dikeou said, "We have an ownership with local roots. My brothers and I were born here. We've got multiple ownership, too. There are three of us, right?"
Some expansion hopefuls define political support as merely having the best wishes of the governor, mayor and others. Dikeou has a different idea.
"The owner of the Zephyrs doesn't get anything out of concessions or parking," he said. "I've talked to different major league baseball owners and they say, 'John, you've got to get something from concessions. No team in major league baseball gets nothing.' This would have to be addressed by the City Council or Mayor Pena. That, to me, comes under 'political support.'
"If major league baseball was starting over today and picked out the 26 best markets, they would not be the same 26 markets they have now. They'd look to Denver, Tampa-St. Pete(rsburg) and Phoenix, the growing markets.
"That's the bottom line to us."