This victory didn't cost much. The next one will.
After eight years of trying to land a major league franchise in Buffalo, Robert E. Rich Jr. celebrated his inclusion Tuesday among the final six National League expansion candidates.
But while he savored the moment, Rich emphasized that to land a major league franchise here, the team must be affordable -- to the community, to prospective investors and to fans.
"We're committed to bringing major league baseball to Western New York and committed to bringing affordable family fun to this area," Rich said. "The two have to harmonize, and we'll be working over the next few months -- not only with the city but with major league baseball -- to make sure that when major league baseball comes to Buffalo in 1993, that it will be affordable for everybody involved and every bit as much fun as Triple A baseball has been."
Also named to the short list were Denver, Washington, D.C., and the Florida cities of Miami, Orlando and Tampa-St. Petersburg.
The cities of Nashville, Tenn.; Charlotte, N.C.; Phoenix, Ariz., and Sacramento, Calif., were eliminated from contention for the two expansion teams that will begin play with the 1993 season.
National League officials say the final site will be selected by Oct. 1. Start-up costs are expected to exceed $125 million, including the $95 million entrance fee.
Douglas Danforth, president of the Pittsburgh Pirates and chairman of the National League Expansion Committee, has said the league might advance that timetable if two candidates stand out from the field. Rich appeared at his news conference both upbeat and relieved following the official announcement of the short list. Rich declared intentions to pursue a major league team for Buffalo shortly after purchasing the former Class AA Buffalo Bisons before the 1983 season.
"This, I believe, is a great day of celebration for Buffalo and Western New York, not only for baseball fans but fans of this great area," Rich said. "I am absolutely thrilled today, because Buffalo deserves this more than any of the four cities not on the list and more
than the five cities we're on the list with."
But there are concerns whether Rich's ownership group and local government have the financial wherewithal to sustain Buffalo's bid.
In a letter to the editor that appeared Saturday in The Buffalo News, Rich himself questioned the economic viability of a major league team in Buffalo.
The letter was enough to prompt key Common Council members to back away from the previous plan to spend money automatically on expanding Pilot Field.
Majority Leader Eugene M. Fahey and Ellicott Council Member James W. Pitts said Tuesday they now want to meet with Rich and major league officials to assess the chances of landing a franchise.
"I am happy and, to be honest, a little bit relieved we're on the short list," Fahey said. "Ever since we saw the letter in the paper, people were prepared that Buffalo would not make the list."
"I want to talk specifically about what are our chances for a franchise and what do we need to do minimally to meet our financial obligation," Pitts said. "The inference is to find out how much time we have."
Rich said he is willing to meet with Council members and other city officials to discuss his position as the Council considers a $2.5 million design contract for improvements at Pilot Field.
"We have nothing to hide from the Common Council, and if we're not as close in communication as they'd like us to be, we apologize," he said. "We have to be as candid with the Common Council as everybody else, discussing what the risks and rewards are. We're talking about serious, hard dollars. Everybody needs to be fully appraised."
Rich's assurances were enough to persuade the Council Finance Committee today to move legislation needed for the $2.5 million contract. The committee voted unanimously to recommend the full Council approve the contract on the condition the meeting be held with Rich.
The contract consideration had been slated to be delayed for two weeks, but Charles Rosenow, the city's lead official on the stadium project, said Rich's comments Tuesday changed that.
"It was approved subject to the announced willingness of Bob Rich to sit down with the Council and my willingness to schedule a meeting," Rosenow said.
Pitts said he would like to hold what he called a "summit meeting" on the topic on Dec. 28. A full Council vote would not likely occur before Jan. 8.
"The city has done a lot, and we're willing to do more," he said. "The question is what is happening privately? Who is involved privately at this point, and are there things that would take place differently now that we're on the short list?"
Rosenow said it is doubtful Rich will go into detail on his private financing at the meeting. He also said it is unlikely major league baseball will send a representative.
The session will be a helpful prelude to the resumption of formal lease negotiations between the city and the Bisons, Rosenow said. He said the two sides were "significantly" apart at the last session two weeks ago. One estimate at City Hall put the gap at $3 million.
"The city is looking for assurances in light of the recent letter by Rich in the paper that he is willing to proceed at (some) risk and what type of risk that is," Rosenow said. "We are willing to go ahead based on an equal risk."
North Council Member David P. Rutecki said the city should push to finish its lease negotiations with the Bisons within six to eight weeks. He said that would present a stronger case to the National League.
"While there are significant obstacles, I'm optimistic we'll find a solution to the city's position that local property tax dollars won't be used to subsidize baseball," Rutecki said.
Rosenow said the Council's meeting with Rich will likely be open to the public but may close its doors if private financial matters come up.
Rich stressed the importance of the Bisons and the city presenting a united front in the pursuit of a franchise.
"One of the facts the National League looks at is government support," he said. "We have to have our house in order."
If Buffalo is pondering the economic risks of a major league franchise, so are the other candidates, Rich said.
"I think every city in this race is dealing with those questions on a day-to-day basis," he said.
Player salaries are a major concern for all prospective owners. Rich noted that baseball had one $3 million player this year, but 26 will receive $3 million next year. The average player salary is approximately $500,000.
"I think these are things we all have to wrestle with, and we'd be less than thoughtful if we weren't weighing all these things as far as what it'll do to ticket prices, to our ability not only to get a franchise, but to be a successful franchise for the region," he said.
Rich implied major league owners would have to quell his financial fears. He indicated, for instance, he would favor salary caps to curb baseball's runaway payrolls.
"There are still a lot of terms that aren't understood," Rich said. "For me, being on the short list is the next major step to starting the kind of dialogue we need to know the answer to those kinds of questions and see what hurdles we still have to overcome. But I'll remind you, we've overcome a lot of hurdles in the last eight years."
"This is a day to celebrate, and as far as evaluation of the parameters of economics, we'll continue that on an ongoing basis," he said. "I don't see decision points coming up. It's an ongoing process to make sure this is an affordable sport for the community involved."