Three bridges span the bay between Tampa and Pinellas County, where St. Petersburg is located. But nothing spans the chasm between the two cities' separate and equally fervent pursuits of a major league baseball team.

The cities' downtowns are a half-hour drive apart, yet each views the other as competition for a franchise should baseball decide to expand by the 1987 season, as is believed likely. Jack Lake, who heads the effort in St. Petersburg, refers to the Tampa committee as a "splinter group" that has tried to "poison the waters" by being territorial. Former New York Yankees president Cedric Tallis, the executive director of the Tampa Bay Baseball Group, calls downtown St. Petersburg "not the best area, you might say."

"We do have to get our act together," says Cecil Englebert, chairman of the Pinellas Sports Authority. "We have been told by baseball that a bridge, stream or a lake does not separate a marketplace."

But Englebert shares the prevailing view of those working for a team here: this is such a good market, baseball cannot afford to turn its back simply because the two sides cannot agree on which side of Tampa Bay a team belongs.

"Baseball people are puzzled, but they're not taking their eye off the ball," says Lake, former publisher of the St. Petersburg Times and president of the group there.

Florida is growing rapidly. By the year 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau projects it will be the nation's third-largest state. It also is growing rapidly as a sports state. Since the Dolphins were awarded to Miami in 1965, the state has added a second National Football League team (in Tampa) and has three U.S. Football League teams. Although most major league baseball teams have their spring training bases in the state, the closest team during the regular season is in Atlanta.

This area feels it is ready. It is the nation's 17th-largest television market, its population is 1,609,142 and there are more than 2.5 million people within 1 1/2 hour drive. One study found metropolitan Tampa-St. Petersburg grew 15.92 percent in 1980-82, the second-fastest rate in the country.

The statistics are impressive, but so is the competition. To the southeast, Miami wants a team, and seven other areas around the country also are serious contenders. This area generally is considered No. 1, 2 or 3 in the race, probably behind only Denver and possibly Washington.

On the east side of the bay is the Tampa Bay Baseball Group, which has a stadium site -- beside Tampa Stadium, where the NFL Buccaneers and the USFL Bandits play -- and private funding for a $60 million, 46,000-seat domed stadium, but construction won't start without a team. The ownership group includes auto dealer Frank Morsani and building contractor William Mack.

On the west side of the bay -- where the picture is a bit less focused -- is Florida Suncoast Baseball. The stadium funding here would be public, and that's the source of the most controversy and litigation.

The money would come from Pinellas' tourist development tax, which the county commission okayed by a vote of 3-2. But an election last November changed the makeup of the commission and a new vote went 3-2 to rescind the pledged $80 million in bonds. Now St. Petersburg and the Pinellas Sports Authority are suing the county for breach of contract.

The proposed site -- in downtown St. Petersburg where a gas plant once was -- also is controversial because many would like something more centrally located to communities in the northern portion of the county and to Tampa. Florida Progress, with Lake part of the St. Petersburg ownership group, offered land in such a location and the Tampa group offered to build a stadium there but, not surprisingly, there is a snag.

"We outlined what we consider we would need to build over there and have never had a written response from the Pinellas Sports Authority," Tallis says.

"There are a few fish hooks in there," says Lake. "They have said that they'd consider building if everything was ready. That's where the double talk comes.

"You're talking about $30 million in preparation costs, as far as we can tell," Lake says, citing fill work and access road construction needed on the northern Pinellas site. The downtown site "is nonnegotiable because it's the only site that's economically feasible . . . It's free," Lake says.

It's nonnegotiable for Tampa, too. "We will not build in downtown St. Petersburg," Tallis says.

There may be an alternative. A Dallas developer is interested in buying land in yet another site, in Pinellas, close to one of the bridges leading to Tampa, and offering it free for a baseball stadium.

In the meantime, the competition continues. In the beginning, the St. Petersburg effort was the only one, started in 1976. TBBG organized in 1982, hired Tallis in '83 and has had high visibility since.

Last year the group bought 42 percent of the Minnesota Twins but sold it back when it became obvious baseball's other owners wouldn't let the team move, and when local Minnesota ownership became available. That gesture is thought to have bought TBBG invaluable goodwill from the baseball establishment.

It didn't make the Tampa group less eager to pursue existing franchises, which Tallis estimates would cost $30 million-50 million. In April, TBBG's efforts to buy the Oakland A's made headlines here, although A's officials played it down.

"We want a major league franchise regardless of category," says Tallis. "We are constantly on the outlook for an existing franchise."

If TBBG bought a team, there is no stadium for it, and no plans to change that. If a team were bought, "I'd think we'd leave it (the team) where it is for the rest of the season."

To build in anticipation of a team would be "sheer madness," Tallis says. Naturally, the opposite sentiment prevails across the bay.

Lake says St. Petersburg's stadium, which also would be domed and cost about $59.6 million, would be "an all-purpose facility. It isn't dedicated to baseball alone."

"We need the facility regardless," Lake says.

Englebert agrees with that and with the idea a city should have a stadium if it hopes to have a team.

"Everybody in baseball tells us, 'If you guys want a team, build a stadium,' " he says, hoping the reality of a facility would "end the competition" with Tampa.

Whether the competition has hurt the area is open to debate. Peter Bavasi, president of the Cleveland Indians, says it hasn't, but he worked with the St. Petersburg group as a consultant for two years.

He says that isn't why he tends to favor St. Petersburg -- he does that because of the public funding for a stadium there versus the private in Tampa, which he says would make finances virtually impossible. That's because the same group would have the expense of building and operating the stadium, and starting up and operating the franchise. All this next door to the publicly funded, 74,315-seat Tampa Stadium, which would have first crack at revenue producers such as concerts.

This would leave the Tampa group "looking down the barrel of a very powerful weapon" if it got a team, Bavasi says.

Although there have been attempts at reconciliation, each city feels it has definite advantages over the other.

"We're a baseball county," says Englebert, citing the four teams that conduct spring training in Pinellas County and average a combined 20,000 a day in attendance. "They're a football county."

Tampa takes that as a compliment, and as another reason baseball would succeed here. The Buccaneers average 55,935, and the Bandits' 46,854 per game is the highest average in the USFL.

TBBG literature points out only 11 percent of Tampa's population is retired; Englebert says "probably 45 percent" of Pinellas is retired. "We've got the population and we've got the young population," Tallis says.

So what, says Lake? "All our studies show that just because a person is retired doesn't mean he won't attend games. And baseball is a price-sensitive sport."

It's more basic for Englebert. "Who in the hell can go to games during the day but retired people? Who has the time?" he asks.

As of now, it appears a consensus is possible on only one statement:

"No matter where you put the stadium in this area," Lake says, "it's going to succeed."