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SOMEHOW, I HAVE the uneasy feeling that if anyone here wants to see major league baseball in person during the '90s, he's going to have to drive to Toronto.

I hope I'm wrong, but my guess is Buffalo's chances for one of those National League expansion franchises are about to fly south, or west.

The Riches' open letter published in The News Saturday was a way of letting Western New York's baseball fans down softly.

At any rate, that is how it read. Short list or no short list, the sense of that letter was the cost of a major league team under current market conditions is beyond the Rich budget.

The letter was almost a confirmation of suspicions. For some time, there has been a feeling the fervor for the "bigs" began dissipating from the moment the expansion committee announced its exorbitant $95 million price tag for club membership.

The Riches went incommunicado after that, surfacing occasionally to issue a statement through their offices. That's never a good sign, particularly when rumors abound.

The letter leaves the definite impression the Riches blinked, maybe even flinched, at the prospect of what a National League franchise might cost them in the long run.

They deserve some sympathy.

It is bad enough the major league owners, in their greed, are attempting to wring blood out of a financial turnip. Now that is followed by a recession and a free-agent market that violates the laws of economics.

In bad times, isn't everyone supposed to share the suffering? Then why did the New York Yankees re-sign Tim Leary, who lost 19 games for them last season, for $5.95 million over three years? Why did the Yankees pay Steve Farr, who lost his job as a closer for Kansas City, $6.3 million over three years?

There is more. Ken Dayley, who had two saves and four victories for the Cardinals, got $6.3 million over three years from Toronto. Darren Daulton hit .268 with 57 runs batted in for the Phillies, so they gave him $6.75 million over three years.

The ruling family of Kuwait must be in exile in the American and National Leagues. The cost of doing business is preposterous, unless you have a super cable TV station vacuuming in money for you.

Obviously, anyone putting out vast sums of money for an expansion franchise will not see a profit for quite a while. Even then, the operators probably would have to squeeze their customers. The Riches wouldn't be anxious to do that.

Nevertheless, the Riches don't come out of this looking very good.

New York State did its share with the seed money for Pilot Field. The city did its share and more. The fans of the Niagara Frontier did theirs. The Riches seem to have blinked.

The question is, what happens if major league baseball doesn't happen here and acquiring an existing team remains as difficult as it always has been?

Everything that has taken place in Pilot Field in the last three years was geared toward advancement to the majors. The fans were a large part of that: "Show The World, etc."

Will a day or night of fun at Pilot Field, with Triple A baseball just a part of the experience, be enough any longer?

Only the fans can answer that.

It's difficult to tell about fans. Scott Boras, a major league player agent, recently was quoted about fans and the escalating prices.

"No franchise ever has been jeopardized by player contracts," claimed Boras. "In 1988, the players were making a lower percentage of gross revenues than they did three years ago.

"And don't worry about a recession. In tough times, people gravitate toward sports and entertainment. It's their search for surrealism."

If you want surrealism in Buffalo in the '90s, try the Albright-Knox.

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