BOB RICH PUT on a pretty good show Tuesday afternoon. After arriving fashionably late to the Bisons clubhouse in the bowels of Pilot Field, he stood before a throng of two dozen journalists and said he was absolutely thrilled with the news. He called it a great day, a "day of celebration for Buffalo and Western New York."
All the moment lacked was a few hundred munchkins, a dead witch and a yellow brick road extending into the distance. That, and a little music.
The problem was, it was not all that happy a day. Rich's expressions of jubilation and relief were, at best, forced. I have watched him at other moments like these -- when the expansion timetable was released, after the presentation in New York -- and this was the first time his words had struck me as strained, awkward, and halting.
The cause for all this forced exuberance was the release, earlier in the afternoon, of the "short list" of candidates for National League expansion. Buffalo, as expected, had survived the swimsuit competition and moved on to the talent portion of the pageant. Five other candidates -- the three Florida cities, Denver and Washington, D.C. -- rounded out the privileged half-dozen.
There was a time, of course, when making the short list would have been great cause for celebration in this town, when simply showing up on a list of serious candidates was considered implausible, a whimsy, a dream. But that time long since has passed.
Not so long ago, there were various national publications pushing Buffalo as the No. 1 contender for a franchise. Even at the worst, it was perceived as a solid third choice in a two-team race. On merit, the critics said, Buffalo might even be the best candidate.
So now, the people in this city are supposed to be jumping up and down over being one of the top six? Everyone's expected to dance around in circles because baseball dropped a house on Charlotte, Nashville, Phoenix and Sacramento? Fans should be elated because the short list, at one point anticipated to include as few as three cities, turned into a Pick Six?
As far as I'm concerned, it's bad news that six cities are still alive. The fact Miami, Orlando and Tampa-St. Petersburg are still breathing is not a very encouraging sign for Buffalo. It tells me the National League is giving very serious thought to giving both new teams to Florida.
Rich says his commitment to landing a team hasn't diminished one iota. But judging from his letter to this newspaper last Saturday, I get the feeling his confidence is beginning to wilt -- though he insists his letter was not a signal of discouragement, just a way of clearing up some bad rumors about his resolve.
"It was picked up in some cities to mean we were dropping out of the race," Rich said. "Most, understandably, came from cities that are competing for a major league franchise. This demonstrates categorically we are not dropping out of the race. But we'll continue with our commitment to making sure this is an affordable project -- for the city, for our fans and for everyone involved."
And most of all, that it be affordable and profitable for Robert Rich. I have no problem with that. Rich is first and foremost a businessman. It's no surprise he would be having major reservations about the $95 million expansion fee, especially with the economy slipping and major league owners breaking the bank on 4.00 pitchers and .220 hitters.
When Rich talks about making it affordable, he's talking about getting concessions. One, he would like a sweeter lease agreement than the "harsh" deal he's being offered by the city. Two, he actually seems to believe he can shake down the major league owners for some kind of assurances that will make running an expansion team more economically feasible.
Maybe he thinks the owners will break down and cut the expansion owners into the TV revenues in 1993. And there is no doubt he, and owners in many small, existing, major league cities, would like to see baseball change the ways it runs its business -- that is, adopt an NBA-style salary cap and revenue-sharing system among the franchises.
"I'm going to look forward to plenty of chances to chat on that subject with major league baseball," Rich said at the conclusion of his press conference.
I wish him luck. If Rich thinks he can tell baseball's entrenched ownership how to run its show, more power to him. But I don't think they're all that worried about changing right now. They're wondering where the money is, who's ready to ante up the $95 million. Owners are like that. Look what happened in the NHL. Money talked and the vacillators walked.
Regrettably, it's not the baseball owners' job to make their private club more affordable to Bob Rich and the people of Buffalo. Maybe the owners are inexorably pricing themselves out of the market and making the game inaccessible to a lot of Americans, but it's their club. Fork over your $95 million or take a hike.
Maybe Rich couldn't have foreseen this dramatic turn of events in baseball economics. But he knew he wasn't getting involved in a church picnic, either. Did he expect the owners to be bowled over by the news he was in for only $10 million of his own money?
Before he starts telling baseball how to spend its money, he ought to consider reaching down for a little more of his own.