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A AT THE BEGINNING of the week, Bob Rich Jr. was attending a convention at the venerable Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. Golf beckoned, tennis beckoned, but Rich was occupied on the telephone, setting up the punch line in Buffalo's bid for major league baseball.

The punch line is Pilot Field and the Bisons' operation there.

The Riches have done all the right things in the quest for a National League team and they came out of the owners' meeting in Cleveland last week buoyed by what they heard from the expansion committee.

But most of the National League moguls who will vote on the two expansion cities have not seen Pilot, nor personally inspected baseball in Buffalo.

"I've been on the phone down here trying to set up some visits," explained Rich.

The owners' plan was to make their tour of prospective expansion cities after the season. Rich wants them to see it much sooner.

To say that something would be lost in translation during a January or February visit to Buffalo is obvious. The local story could be told with audio visuals, but Pilot Field is best experienced during a live baseball game.

"We know that the Montreal people will be down here Monday night for the Old Timers Classic, when John McHale is honored," says Rich. "There may be other major league owners here, too."

McHale, a Bison slugger in the mid '40s, long served as president of the Expos.

Until now, any baseball brass involved in the expansion process studiously avoided visiting the lairs of any hopeful. When Commissioner Fay Vincent was in St. Petersburg for spring training, he barely glanced at the outside of the Suncoast Dome, which would be the home of a Tampa Bay team.

"But now the commissioner is traveling, visiting some minor league parks," says Rich.

Vincent and the owners will be inspecting more than stadiums and operations during their future visits. They will look closely at the ownership groups.

Without revealing names, Rich made it clear that his group was virtually completed.

"There will be people in it who haven't been involved in sports before and some people from out of town," he said.

In fact, Buffalo's ownership group is more stable than those in Denver and Florida, currently the principal competition. One of the original principals in St. Petersburg's bid was turned down as a principal owner by major league baseball. Frank Morsani, the car dealer spearheading St. Pete's bid, sold some of his dealerships to finance his group. Now Morsani is trying to recruit Tom Hammond of Sarasota, the money man behind Hawk Harrelson's attempt to put together an ownership group.

The meetings in Cleveland buoyed Orlando, too. Pat Williams, general manager of the NBA's Orlando Magic and the point man in that city's baseball bid, seized upon the expansion committee's preference for natural grass. The St. Pete dome does not have it, of course.

Meanwhile, in Denver, there are serious problems in putting together the $100 million required for the expansion franchise fee, as well as stumbling blocks in an attempt to build a new stadium.

Last week, the Coors Brewery, one of the area's major industries, made it clear that it would not help pay for any new stadium. Coors, which said in January it planned to join Denver's ownership group, still hasn't signed a contract.

At the same time, Pat Bowlen, owner of the football Broncos, made it clear he was not interested in any new stadium.

Meanwhile, at the baseball meeting in Cleveland, Douglas Danforth, president of the Pittsburgh Pirates and head of the expansion committee, came off the elevator and was greeted by the cheers of the man-in-the-street contingent from Buffalo.

"Great fans they have in Buffalo," said Danforth, grinning.

Call me a dreamer, if you like, but I'm optimistic.

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