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Saturday, January 18, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Al West Gets Wilder In 1998 -- Tampa Bay Likely Bound For Far- Flung Competition

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

More than 20 years after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers began their football life in the Western Division of the AFC, similar geographical confusion is about to strike baseball.

The expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays appear headed for the American League's West Division when they launch their inaugural season next year. They would join the Mariners, Anaheim Angels, Oakland Athletics and Texas Rangers in the AL West in '98, though realignment throughout baseball remains a distinct possibility in subsequent years.

Despite their isolation from division rivals, Devil Ray ownership expressed support of the move, calling it "better than expected."

Highly placed baseball sources confirmed that the Devil Rays' probable placement in the AL West was necessary to get owners to vote for Tampa Bay's inclusion in the American League and the other expansion team, the Arizona Diamondbacks, in the National League. There was an "understanding" reached among owners that no existing team will have to switch divisions in 1998.

That was a highly contentious issue at the just concluded owners' meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz., where both leagues wanted Arizona. The Diamondbacks are headed to the NL West.

The American League fought to receive both expansion teams as a means to prevent the necessity of realignment next year. If Tampa Bay had gone into the AL East, which appeared most logical, a current AL East team, most likely Detroit, would have had to move to

the AL Central, and a Central team - most likely Kansas City or Minnesota - would have had to switch to the AL West. The Tigers, Twins and Royals balked at such a move.

By placing Tampa Bay in the AL West, no existing teams would have to switch divisions.

"I don't think it's absolutely concrete, but if I had to bet, that's the way I'd bet it would be," said Texas Ranger president Tom Schieffer. "I don't think it's a very wise thing to do. It's just the absurdity of having the only division of foes coast to coast."

Texas, which joined Kansas City as the only teams to vote against the league placement, wanted both teams in the AL so they could join teams based in the Central time zone as part of a new, four-division format.

Tampa Bay owner Vince Naimoli said he would be delighted to be in the AL West. Because of the balanced schedule now in place, in which teams play virtually the same number of games against teams inside and outside their division, travel is not radically altered.

In fact, the Devil Rays could argue that it would be easier to compete immediately in the AL West, which has fewer big-market, big-spending teams.

"Honestly, division assignment is immaterial with a balanced schedule," Naimoli said.

There are reports that the deal was sweetened for Tampa Bay to accept placement in the AL West. The Yankees and perhaps other teams were said to have traded interleague games in 1998. The Yankees reportedly allowed the Devil Rays to have their scheduled games against Florida and Atlanta - natural rivals for Tampa Bay - in exchange for the Devil Rays' games against the Dodgers and Giants. The Yankees believe the two former New York teams would be big draws.

In related developments, it was agreed at the meetings that this year's interleague format, in which East plays East, etc., will likely be repeated in 1998, rather than rotating divisions as originally planned.

Schedule makers will also attempt to ensure that regional rivalries are included among the interleague games in future years.

A realignment committee established this week will look at the possibility of some teams switching leagues. The likeliest scenario, sources confirmed, calls for the Astros to move to the AL Central, along with the Rangers, to enhance that rivalry, and the Royals joining the NL Central to join the Cardinals.

It was agreed at the meeting, however, that no realignment would occur before 2000.

In football, the Tampa Bay Bucs played the 1976 season in the AFC West before switching to the NFC Central.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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