BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN : Phoenix Group Is Confident of Gaining an NL Franchise

Despite the ongoing dilution of major league pitching, another expansion remains likely in 1998.

An expansion committee chaired by John Harrington, CEO of the Boston Red Sox, is scheduled to make a preliminary report at an owners' meeting in Cincinnati on June 8-9 and recommend that the process continue. Selection of the cities is tentatively scheduled for December or January, but that's a mere formality.

Long romanced Tampa-St. Petersburg will finally walk down the aisle with an American League franchise, and Phoenix will join the Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, San Diego Padres and Colorado Rockies in the National League West.

"We're proceeding as if it's going to happen," said Jerry Colangelo, president of the Phoenix Suns and chairman of the group seeking the baseball franchise. "We're primed and ready for the final stages."

Asked about speculation that the Angels might move to Arizona if they are unable to work out a lease extension in Anaheim, Colangelo laughed and said: "That's pie-in-the-sky leverage. Our interest is in expansion and expansion only. We can't move ahead on a stadium unless we get expansion approval. There's no interim facility, and can you imagine the losses the Angels or any other existing club would incur playing three years or more (as a lame duck) in their current market while a stadium was being built here? Plus, we don't want anyone else's baggage."

Colangelo said he will be surprised if Phoenix fails to get an expansion team.

"I was encouraged by people I knew in baseball to organize a group and put the funding together," he said. "We have the group and we have the funding. I wouldn't have gone this far without baseball's encouragement. The ball is in baseball's lap."

Colangelo wouldn't say where that encouragement came from, but it is believed that two friends and part-time Phoenix area residents--Jerry Reinsdorf, co-owner of the Chicago White Sox, and interim commissioner Bud Selig, owner of the Milwaukee Brewers--provided the shove.

Neither Selig nor Reinsdorf would comment on that matter, but speaking generally of expansion, Selig said: "If we didn't think the process had merit, we wouldn't be examining it."

By expanding each league to three divisions of five teams each, baseball will either have to test interleague play or have one club in each league idle every night. The ultimate blueprint calls for 32 teams and another significant realignment.

The process is not without opposition. Many in baseball believe that the talent is too thin to absorb two more teams only five years after the introduction of the Rockies and the Florida Marlins. Selig acknowledged that "with all the talk of juiced-up baseballs, people are more concerned about the level of pitching. Do two more markets outweigh further dilution? That's a serious question."

There are also those who believe troubled clubs such as the Montreal Expos should be moved before any further expansion.

However, proponents cite improved scheduling and geographic considerations, the remarkable bonanza generated by the Rockies and Marlins, the windfall entry fee--likely to be significantly more than the $95 million paid by Colorado and Florida. They also cite possible use of expansion as a bargaining chip in the labor negotiations with the players union, as a response to government threats to eliminate the antitrust exemption and as a wedge against the federal suit filed by St. Petersburg after being jilted again when the owners voted to keep the Giants in San Francisco, voiding the move to Florida.

The two sides in that suit have agreed to a year's delay in further court proceedings, underscoring the belief that expansion is on the way.

Colangelo, meanwhile, said Phoenix will need three years to prepare because of the absence of an interim facility. The plan is to build a $278-million, 45,000-seat, retractable-roof stadium with a grass field in the vicinity of the America West Arena.

Maricopa County supervisors have approved a quarter-cent sales tax increase to fund $238 million of the project, with Colangelo's group providing the rest. The tax will be implemented only if Phoenix is awarded a franchise. However, the county's approval of the tax expires next April, meaning baseball must act before then.

"We're well aware of that," Selig said.

REMEMBERING STRAW

Davey Johnson, who managed Darryl Strawberry with the New York Mets, said of Strawberry's departure from the Dodgers:

"I think everybody who has been associated with Darryl feels that maybe we have failed in some way. I know I was pretty hard on him at times. I felt like he needed a strong hand. I used to bench him, fine him, play him nine innings in an exhibition game.

"Darryl would come to me and say, 'I need you to tell me when I'm wrong.' He could be very . . . I don't want to say nice, but he could be very well-spoken, making a lot of sense. The things he said a lot of times were good things, constructive things. He wanted the team to do well."

Johnson, now the Reds' manager, recalled that in the spring of 1989, Strawberry seemed despondent, burdened by financial and personal problems.

"He wanted to jump the club. That was the only way he could deal with the pressure. I told him that would be a mistake, the worst thing he could do. He said he appreciated the advice. Everything seemed cool. The next day he didn't show up for a workout. I should have known right then. He talked himself into it that night.

"Ultimately, we're responsible for our own actions, but I've always wondered if there were things I could have done differently, handled him in a better way. I don't know. So many people have always expected so much of him that there has always been pressure no matter what he does or what anyone else does."

How good could Strawberry have been?

"Unlimited," Johnson said. "He had so many good years in the late '80s that I really thought he was on the right track, that he was growing up. I was hoping I could be there to see him hit 60 home runs (in a season). There were times I was so sure he'd do it."

LEADERSHIP VOID

The Texas Rangers rewarded Juan Gonzalez for his consecutive home run titles with a seven-year, $45-million-plus contract, hoping it would help the 24-year-old slugger recognize his priorities and responsibilities as a young leader. The club might be wondering if Gonzalez would recognize those responsibilities at any price.

With the Rangers about to lose their fourth straight game last Sunday in Seattle, Gonzalez took himself out of the lineup in the fourth inning because of what was said to be a bruised left shin suffered in a first-inning collision with third baseman Dean Palmer. Palmer, who took the worst of it, played the entire game.

"I didn't feel good," Gonzalez said. "I was sore."

He was apparently too sore to run out an inning-ending popup in the fourth, angrily flinging his bat instead, after which he left the game, a departure that might have had more to do with a sick bat than a bruised body.

Gonzalez has six hits in his last 44 at-bats. He has not driven in a run in that span and has not homered in his last 74 at-bats.

BAY BLUES

Hoping to keep the Dodgers in sight, the problems and frustrations continue to mount for the Giants, forced to put rotation ace Bill Swift (inflamed shoulder muscle) and reliever Rich Monteleone (stress fracture in a foot) on the disabled list, joining second baseman Robby Thompson (partially torn rotator) and reliever Kevin Rogers (circulatory problem).

In San Diego on Monday, Mark Portugal screamed at a reporter, and Dave Martinez was ejected when he argued a called third strike. The next night, Matt Williams set a helmet-throw record when he flied out to the warning track with two out and the tying run at third base in the ninth inning.

Manager Dusty Baker, operating now with two rookies in his rotation and something of a patchwork lineup that includes a .256 hitter, Todd Benzinger, at first base while Will Clark bats .363 for the Rangers, had already lit into his team during a 20-minute clubhouse meeting in Chicago last weekend. That was followed by three consecutive losses, then Wednesday and Thursday victories in San Diego, where Baker said:

"It's too early to panic, but it's not too early to not like what I see. We play good for three, bad for two, good for two, bad for three. That's why we're at .500."

A question of attitude?

"I ain't worried about the attitude," he said. "As long as I'm the manager, the attitude is going to be good, I guarantee that. We've just got to fight through it, and we will."

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