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"While expansion will be a big issue this week, it will still rank behind strike talk on the ownership hit parade," writes Jayson Stark from the owners' meeting at The Breakers in Palm Beach, FL. The negotiating committee will report to the full ownership on the talks, with a possible lockout strategy on the agenda with the NLRB due to make its ruling "any day now" (PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, 3/8). Rockies Owner Jerry McMorris said he believes talks will resume at the beginning of next week, and there were "some indications that a bargaining session could take place on Monday in Chicago." MLBPA Exec Dir Don Fehr said he had heard nothing from owners (Mark Maske, WASHINGTON POST, 3/8). McMorris: "I want to be part of getting this over with and I want a deal that's meaningful" ("Sports Tonight," CNN, 3/7). REPLACEMENT NEGOTIATORS? ESPN's Peter Gammons reported that big market teams, such as the Mets, Blue Jays and Yankees, are going to "get together to try to map their strategy to get this thing finished" ("SportsCenter," 3/7). Unless the union can change his mind, Special Mediator William Usery is expected to ask the owners to put their "best offer" on the table. That raises the issue of "how hard-line that final proposal should be." Yankees Owner George Steinbrenner and Mets Owner Fred Wilpon, both recent additions to the Executive Council, are willing to "preach" a pro-settlement stance (Tom Keegan, N.Y. POST, 3/8). Don Mattingly expressed disbelief that Steinbrenner and other big-market owners would let Bud Selig "run the show" (Jeff Bradley, N.Y. DAILY NEWS, 3/8). The Phils' Dave Hollins called on his boss, Bill Giles, to get involved: "He's a guy who could get the hard-liners thinking about the fans" (Paul Hagen, PHILADELPHIA DAILY NEWS, 3/7). NOWHERE TO GO BUT DOWN? SI's Tim Kurkjian quotes Fehr from last Saturday: "Remember what Resindorf said -- May of '96, May of '96." Kurkjian reports that Fehr's "animosity" toward the owners, and White Sox Chair Jerry Reinsdorf's "similar feelings" toward Fehr "are key points in the stalled talks." One owner says Reinsdorf "doesn't want to break the union, he wants the demise of Fehr" ("Scorecard," SI, 3/13 issue). In L.A., Ross Newhan cites one member of the owners' negotiating team who said that Fehr "actually interrupted one promising session to conduct a news briefing because he said he had a commitment to an Eastern writer on deadline." On the other side, Newhan doubts the union's claim Reinsdorf is pulling the strings. Noting that McMorris wouldn't go to dinner with fellow owners if Reinsdorf was present, Newhan writes "it is difficult to believe" he would act as Reinsdorf's "front man" (L.A. TIMES, 3/8). In Washington, Tom Boswell reports, "Many players are mad enough to pull everything off the table; let the owners have the pleasure of watching their replacement teams for a couple of months" (WASHINGTON POST, 3/8). WOLF IN BIRD'S CLOTHING: Orioles Owner Peter Angelos arrives in Palm Beach today. Sources said the Executive Council meeting last night "became, in part, an Angelos-bashing session." AL President Gene Budig meets with acting MLB Commissioner Bud Selig today on the Orioles, "and it appears the league may be shying away from a legal battle with Angelos and simply may permit the Orioles to forfeit replacement games" (Mark Maske, WASHINGTON POST, 3/8).
The NHL is proposing that five IHL franchises move to the AHL and that the NHL tranfser all IHL working agreements to the AHL, according to an AP report picked up in this morning's CINCINNATI ENQUIRER. The plan would transfer IHL teams in Cleveland, Indianapolis, Kalamazoo, Peoria and Ft. Wayne to the AHL. Cincinnati Cyclones' GM Doug Kirchofer downplayed concerns that the IHL's value as a developmental league is diminishing, but added: "They have in their power the means to make us what we don't want to be." Panthers Asst GM Chuck Fletcher said he was unaware of any move away from the IHL (Randy Oppenheimer, CINCINNATI ENQUIRER, 3/8).
MLB's Expansion Committee recommended that Tampa Bay and Phoenix be awarded expansion franchises for the '98 season. Full ownership is scheduled to vote on the recommendation on Thursday, but labor matters could delay that agenda (Mult., 3/8). Reaction from the four markets: TAMPA BAY: The area's "18-year-long quest to join the major leagues appears all but completed," according to Henderson & Chastain in this morning's TAMPA TRIBUNE. Managing General Partner Vince Naimoli: "I'm absolutely elated. We are ready to go forward now." Naimoli has been told to sign a merchandising agreement before the meetings' end -- "another strong sign that a franchise is about to be granted." Also, area stores and the Thunderdome have plans to start selling team memorabilia on Thursday (TAMPA TRIBUNE, 3/8). The team will be called the Devil Rays with the logo featuring a realistic drawing of a manta ray. The color scheme will include aqua, purple, black, green, yellow and white. Caps will feature a picture of a devil ray. Namoli says pre-orders for the merchandise "are several times more" than for any other MLB team (Topkin & Romano, ST. PETERSBURG TIMES, 3/8). However, in an informal poll in today's TRIBUNE, fans "overwhelmingly rejected" the choice of Devil Rays. Out of 82 fans polled, 68 gave the name a grade of D or F. Naimoli would not confirm the name, but said the team's logo and colors have been carefully chosen: "We've done consumer research that indicates these colors and logo will be the hottest-selling merchandise in the sports industry" (Bob Chick, TAMPA TRIBUNE, 3/8). Naimoli wanted to use "Stingrays," but a Hawaiian Winter League team already owns that name (AP/ATLANTA CONSTITUTION, 3/8). PHOENIX: Suns Owner Jerry Colangelo reaffirmed his belief in the Phoenix market, saying that was the reason his group was willing to pay up to $140M to gain entry into the league: "If someone handed me one-third of the teams in baseball, I wouldn't touch them with a 10-foot pole" (Ronald Blum, AP/ATLANTA CONSTITUTION, 3/8). Colangelo announced three new investment partners in his ownership group, including comedian Billy Crystal. Also on board: Bank of America and the owners of Phoenix radio station KTAR. Phoenix attorney Joe Garagiola Jr., whom Colangelo has hired as the expected team's GM, said the investors have requests in writing for about 30,000 season tickets and that they have commitments from area corporations or individuals to lease all 77 luxury suites in the retractable-dome stadium that would be built for the team (Eric Miller, ARIZONA REPUBLIC, 3/7). Multiple reports say the team will be called the Arizona Diamondbacks (Mult, 3/8). ESPN's Peter Gammons reported that Phoenix "has a huge celebration planned for the weekend" ("SportsCenter," 3/7). NORTHERN VIRGINIA: Sources say that Northern VA is "running a strong third" in the expansion derby," according to the WASHINGTON POST. One owner who participated in the expansion committee meeting: "They're going to be in the second round of expansion. We'll probably announce that within the next 12 months" (Maske & Lipton, WASHINGTON POST, 3/8). William Collins, head of the Virginia Baseball Group told the committee that his group was ready to "pay now and play later," according to sources cited by the WASHINGTON TIMES. Collins says his group is "not flinching" at the reported $140M entry fee: "Whatever baseball says, we stand ready, willing and certainly able to put that money in place immediately" (Thom Loverro, WASHINGTON TIMES, 3/8). ORLANDO: Norton Herrick, lead investor of the Orlando effort, says he is still "very optimistic" about Orlando's chances, and "suggested he might have the support" of Marlins' Owner Wayne Huizenga. Herrick says he met with Huizenga before proceeding with Orlando's bid, and received his "blessing to proceed." Huizenga said later he would wait until the committee's recommendations before deciding how to vote. Paul Jacobs, a lawyer for the Orlando group, said both Tampa and Orlando could support MLB teams: "I don't think either would be mutually exclusive by any means" (Henderson & Chastain, TAMPA TRIBUNE, 3/8). NATIONAL REAX: Reactions to MLB expanding in the midst of the strike were as expected. Tom Boswell writes, "That's like Germany announcing a new Volkswagen for the U.S. market in December, 1944" (WASHINGTON POST, 3/8). Jayson Stark writes, "Most businesses in the free world might have a hard time explaining why they're expanding during what is supposed to be their darkest hour" (PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, 3/8). In DC, Dick Heller writes, "By proceeding with their expansion pipe dreams, the owners are telling the world, 'Look how tough we are. A little thing like this strike won't interfere with our plans'" (WASHINGTON TIMES, 3/8).