THE WHOLE IDEA, Mindy Rich once said, is never to give baseball an out. Never provide them a legitimate reason to say no to Buffalo. Never let them perceive the city has weaknesses it cannot overcome. Make Buffalo the popular choice, the sentimental favorite to acquire one of two National League expansion franchises.
And for eight years, the Bisons were exemplary suitors. They wined the owners, dined the owners, romanced them with gooey Bisongrams. Whenever circumstance said bite your tongue, the Bisons sampled their own blood.
Alternative leagues? The Bisons weren't interested. A presence on the Senate's baseball task force? Not Buffalo's way.
The owners were infatuated with the prim and proper Rich family. And only a month ago the game's grapevine had Buffalo and Miami atop the expansion rankings.
Sentiments have changed. The unflappable Riches have buckled, damaging Buffalo's major league dreams with their sudden, ill-timed change of style and tact.
The evidence reaches beyond last Saturday's letter submitted by the Rich family to The Buffalo News. However, the letter provides insight into Bob Rich's curious affectations of the past few weeks.
Without prompting, the prim and proper expansion candidate sided with the minor leagues in their acrimonious contract dispute with Major League Baseball.
"I have to assume Major League Baseball understands our position," Bob Rich said. "I can't turn my back on minor league baseball and keep my self-respect. I have to look at myself in the mirror when I shave. I have to vote my conscience. I hope Major League Baseball respects that."
There was more. Rich said he would repel any attempts by the major leagues to place a renegade minor league team in Buffalo; he acknowledged the possibility of joining an alternative league; he threatened to forego custom and select his own players in the Rule 5 draft; and, ultimately, he voted against ratification of the negotiated contract between the majors and the minors, a contract that will, it must be duly noted, enhance Major League Baseball budgets and help make the game more "affordable" in small to mid-sized markets.
Ostensibly, the team in hand, a Bisons franchise with an annual profit margin probably in the neighborhood of $2 million, has overruled the expansion risk in the bush.
As for the Riches' controversial letter to the editor, the concerns they raise are valid. The $95 million entry fee is a deterrent in a market the size of Buffalo's; player salaries are exorbitant; the nation's economy is in a nose dive.
But what was the driving motivation behind this letter? "Our letter was to squelch an awful lot of rumors that had been going on about our involvement and commitment to this project," Bob Rich said.
Wrong. If the intent was to quell rising concerns of the Riches' commitment, it would not pose the question: "Is baseball expansion economically feasible at this time?"
Indeed, the Riches have woven a clever web these past few weeks. They opposed the major leagues in contract negotiations; they have burdened the city with outlandish lease demands requiring immediate attention; they have admonished the media for its liberal interpretation of an open letter that reads as a plea for compassion while braking inches short of a concession speech.
Foremost, however, they have given baseball reason to say no to Buffalo.
If the Riches can't afford major league baseball, why don't they just say so?
There will be no guarantees of a championship season for the Bisons in 1991. Razor Shines, the King of Rings, is returning to Indianapolis.
Shines had indicated he would return to Buffalo this season after his promise of a divisional championship was broken with the Herd's 18-inning loss to Nashville in the American Association East tie-breaker game. "I have unfinished business," is how Shines put it.
But Razor had second thoughts during the off-season, and who can blame him? After helping Indy to four straight Association titles, Shines deserved better treatment than he received last season.
The Pittsburgh Pirates and the Bisons, the latter intent on snapping Indy's championship string, conspired to lure Shines away from the Indians. Razor was up for the challenge -- until the Bucs shipped him south as part of their working arrangement with the Mexico City Reds.
So Shines took his seven minor league championship rings and departed for the glamorous Mexican League circuit, where every crowd in every park has Yankee Stadium's gorilla mentality. Shines was clanked by cans; he was bopped by bottles; he couldn't wait to get the heck out of there. But wait he did.
The Pirates decided to recall Shines once American Association rosters expanded late in the season. But this wasn't your standard here's-the-bus-ticket transaction. Mexico City, in a playoff race of their own, intercepted Pittsburgh's repeated attempts to reach Shines. Five days later, Pittsburgh made contact by routing the message through another American player.
The Pirates have renewed their relationship with Mexico City; Shines has renewed acquaintances with Indianapolis, which plummeted to last in the Association East last season. "We'll be at the top against next year," Razor said. "You can forget about 1990."
Already, it's just like old times.
The Happy Handicapper is on vacation. His column will return next Saturday.