Bottom Of The Ninth In The City By The Bay?

Does the White Elephant Dome finally have a tenant? For almost a decade now, St. Petersburg has been waiting for a big-league team, any team, to come play in its $128 million Florida Suncoast Dome. So when St. Petersburg officials announced on Aug. 7 that a local investor group had agreed to buy the San Francisco Giants from real estate tycoon Bob Lurie, St. Pete baseball boosters were ready to welcome slugger Will Clark and his teammates. Within hours, T-shirts on the streets of Retirement City proclaimed "A Giant Team Come True," as horns blared and newspapers cranked out special editions. "This area has been like V-J day after the war," says St. Pete assistant city manager Rick Dodge, who led the local effort to lure baseball.

Skeptics say the celebration is premature. After all, the town's baseball hopes have been raised and dashed half a dozen times before. And National League and American League owners have good reasons to nix the plan to sell the Giants to a group led by industrialist Vincent J. Naimoli for $110 million. What's more, a San Francisco trade union has mounted an 11th-hour bid to finance a new stadium and keep the Giants in the City by the Bay.

SHUFFLING CARDS. St. Pete's baseball-starved citizens will be happy to know that the reasons to let the Giants move far outweigh the reasons to force them to stay put. Yes, AL owners will miss their shot at opening a Florida franchise in the near future. But if the Giants leave San Francisco, the league's Oakland Athletics will have the Bay Area, the fourth-largest media market in the U.S., to themselves. "The American League is going to have to decide if it's worth itgiving up Florida to get California," says Jerry M. Reinsdorf,the owner of the Chicago White Sox.

The campaign to keep the Giants in Frisco lost a prime candidate for savior when potential investor H. Irving Grousbeck, co-founder of Continental Cablevision, walked away from any deal after looking at the team's financial future.

Besides all that, a number of AL owners feel that they owe the citizens of St. Pete a favor. At one time or another during the 1980s, the Athletics, White Sox, Minnesota Twins, and Texas Rangers feinted toward the Florida city. And Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig encouraged St. Pete's abortive bid for the National League franchise that eventually went to the Florida Marlins, who will be based in Miami.

Moving the Giants might also get Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent out of a jam. In July, he ordered a realignment of the National League, shifting the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals to the Western Div. and the Cincinnati Reds and Atlanta Braves to the Eastern. The Cubs, fearing that extra night games on the West Coast would cut their television audience, have obtained a court injunction blocking the rearrangement. Vincent may eventually prevail in court, but the Giants' sale offers him a chance to play the diplomat. "Maybe he can find some way to make the Cubs happy," suggests former Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Vincent could use a coup on realignment to shore up his fading support among the owners.

VOTING AYE. Vincent's big worry right now may be about St. Pete's ownership group. Recent revelations about former Phar-Mor President Michael Monus, an investor in the NL's other expansion team, the Colorado Rockies, have raised questions about how thoroughly the leagues check the credentials of prospective owners. But similar surprises about the St. Pete investors do not appear likely. Naimoli and fellow owners Mark Bostick, J. Rex Farrior Jr., Vincent Piazza, and Vincent Tirendi are not known to have any associations or background that would botch their approval, say Florida business sources. Most owners seem to share the mood of Bill Giles, president of the Philadelphia Phillies. "Unless we find out something bad about the ownership group that we don't know now," he says, "I'm leaning toward voting for" the move.

Even so, the vote will have its moments of suspense as owners from both leagues maneuver for concessions in exchange for their support. Of course, if the move is approved, baseball will lose one prime asset: an empty stadium beckoning restless teams. As baseball's expansion process proved, though, there's no shortage of cities desperate for a major league team. A victory for St. Pete would just give them new reason to hope.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.