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BUFFALO'S INCLUSION on the short list of six cities that could still earn a major league franchise next year rewards the hard work of Robert E. Rich Jr., owner of the Triple-A Bisons, and many others in government and private life who nourish the dream of big-league baseball played in Western New York.

Staying in the running for a National League franchise, which comes with the plump price tag of $95 million, speaks well, too, for the cooperation of local governments and for the Western New York fans who pack Pilot Field in record numbers for minor-league games.

Buffalo is the smallest of the six cities left in the competition for the two new teams that will take the field in 1993. The others are Orlando, Miami, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Washington, D.C. and Denver. So Rich's competition has larger markets to draw from for both filling stadium seats and television viewing.

But Buffalo has by far the best track record in attendance. More than one million tickets have been sold, including 9,000 season tickets, to watch the Bisons play in each of the last three years. That's an all-time record for attendance in minor-league baseball. The Bisons draw more fans than some major-league clubs.

This loyalty is characteristic of Buffalo. The Buffalo Bills, drawing from the same small market, hold the all-time National Football League attendance record.

Rich has drawn criticism for his letter in The News last weekend. It stressed that while he and his wife, Mindy, want to bring baseball to Buffalo, "we do not believe in
baseball at any cost." Launching a successful franchise, he added, includes making sure it will be "affordable for everybody involved."

Realistic sentiments. The $95 million is not cheap, particularly at a time when soaring salaries already push the average up to $500,000 per player, and television viewing of baseball has turned soft. It isn't cheap when banks are failing. It isn't cheap when the economy is unwholesomely leveraged and has slumped into thickening recession.

These are hard facts the baseball owners might want to consider.

With Buffalo still on the list of most promising expansion franchises, the next steps must include a review of costs and financial options, and the formulation of a strong, financially viable program that benefits all the main parties.

Nobody in Buffalo considers this challenge easy. One thing that is clear is that local taxpayers have done their share and should not be expected to contribute operating money to any local sports team.

Far from a sure thing, the Rich bid may prove to be an underdog entry. But other cities and the potential club owners face similarly formidable problems of cash and cooperation.

In his jubilation over being able to continue in the hunt, Rich noted the challenges. But he also stressed that "we've overcome a lot of hurdles in the last eight years."

That he has. And the ultimate significance of winning a place on the short list of remaining competitors is that it prolongs the opportunity to land a big-league franchise -- whatever the odds.

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