The major league baseball owners' winter meetings will convene Monday in San Diego. For the longest time, officials in cities craving an expansion franchise had predicted that this would be their envelope-please-and-drum-roll moment of truth.
Now, they are not so sure.
Only a month ago, officials from Washington, D.C., and 11 other cities made one-hour presentations to Commissioner Peter Ueberroth and baseball's long-range planning committee in New York. They left those meetings with good vibes, riding an emotional high.
Yet now it seems that doubts and questions fill the expansion skies. After months of a subtle chest-puffing competition, the officials from expansion-hopeful cities might soon discover that all they have won is a little more time to wait, wait, wait. "A wild goose chase," is how one potential owner of a D.C. franchise termed the process.
"To think that anything (definitive) will come out of San Diego," said Morris Siegel, consultant to the D.C. Baseball Commission, "would be foolish. Maybe after the first of the year, after they have settled the problems with the existing franchises, then they can't say that other issues will keep them from expansion."
"The key element in San Diego," said Robert Pincus, president of the D.C. National Bank and a member of the baseball commission, "is what will happen to the Giants."
Some baseball executives say that the sport has too many problems with exisiting teams to think about expanding just yet. Seattle owner George Argyros is among them, saying, "The economics of the game are upside down. A business has to be financially viable. There's no sense expanding when you already have weak franchises."
It also is unclear how to factor in the San Francisco Giants' situation. If the financially-strapped Giants are sold and then relocated -- which team owner Bob Lurie does not want to happen -- where will they go?
Denver sits with open arms and Mile High Stadium ready for baseball in 1986. It is unlikely RFK Stadium could house both a baseball team and the Redskins for the 1986 season, according to the stadium's general manager Jim Dalrymple.
Dalrymple said the necessity of fabricating new seats and reworking the playing surface means "it could probably be done (for 1986), but it would be close to impossible."
Lurie, who on Friday termed "constructive" his recent talks with city officials about building a new stadium in San Francisco, stated a view held by many in baseball when he said, "I've been around long enough to know that there are mixed feelings on expansion. I can't see it happening right away and by right away I mean the next two or three years."
Some feel these San Diego meetings will reflect how committed Ueberroth is to expansion and whether he has the power to persuade owners to his side. District Councilman Frank Smith, chairman of the baseball commission, said, "I think if Ueberroth is thinking about his legacy in baseball, he'll have to present a cogent, clear and reasonable plan to solve some of baseball's problems.
"I'm convinced Ueberroth wants expansion for baseball because it's good for baseball. I'm convinced he wants expansion because he can make lots of friends and because he's very political, as I am."
Officials from Washington wonder, too, about Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams and whether he might do any back-room politicking against a team that certainly would infringe on his territory.
About 20 percent of the Orioles' attendance comes from the Washington metropolitan area and, should an expansion franchise come to the District, the Orioles figure to lose a great chunk of those fans. Williams has declined to return calls.
Members of baseball's long-range planning committee will present their report to the 26 owners Wednesday. Each league's owners will meet Thursday, then the 26 owners might reconvene that afternoon.
Rules stipulate three-fourths of the owners in the affected league and a majority in the unaffected league have to vote in favor of expansion, in order for it to occur. It is considered unlikely that owners will reach the voting stage in San Diego.
If expansion occurs, it is likely to happen in the National League, which has 12 teams, two fewer than the American League. Besides Washington, the cities that made presentations in New York were: Denver, Indianapolis, Buffalo, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla., Phoenix, Vancouver, Miami, New Orleans, Nashville, East Rutherford, N.J., and Columbus, Ohio.
Smith said that when the 26 owners arrive at the Town and Country hotel in San Diego, they will receive a brochure and a telegram from the D.C. Baseball Commission "to bring them up to date on Washington and to tell them we've got the stadium, the owners and the fan support."
Ueberroth has advised officials from cities seeking an expansion franchise not to attend the meetings, in hopes of minimizing distractions.
Smith said no member of the commission or any of the potential owners plans to attend, although he added, "if I see some people from other cities going, I'm not going to sit here and let my city get put back at a disadvantage."
If the wheels of expansion are spinning slowly in the minds of baseball executives, they are spinning fast and furious in the District. The commission announced Friday that it has received 15,367 pledges for season tickets to a nonexistent baseball team, meaning that commitments for more than $8.7 million have been made.
Also, attorney Robert Washington has formed a group of between five and nine minority investors who are interested in becoming part of an ownership group of a team in Washington. At present, there are two known ownership groups in Washington: one led by land developers Oliver T. Carr, James Clark, Ted Lerner and Dr. Robert Schattner and the other, which is a formidable group of one, Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke.
"I hardly think we'll leave San Diego with expansion franchises being declared," said Peter Bavasi, president of the Cleveland Indians, who worked with the expansion drives in Indianapolis and St. Petersburg before joining the Indians. "Expansion is only listed on the agenda as a report item, not an action item. Baseball is taking a fairly well-planned position on expansion and I think that's good and right.
"This is the first major step towards expansion and the applying cities should look at this as a big step forward. This will be a preliminary report and baseball just doesn't act that swiftly, especially on an issue as important as this. This will lead to the intermediate steps, which will be for the clubs to determine whether expansion is good. The final step will be the one where the cities are named."
The Washington drive has reached a fever pitch over the past month. If baseball delays its decision on expansion, the momentum could be lost.
Smith said, "We've waited 15 years here. We could wait another one, if we had to."
"If they hold off (for a prolonged period), though," said Pincus, "it could become negative in terms of people around here becoming cynical about the whole thing."