THE days when a "Western swing" for a majorleague baseball team meant a train trip to Chicago or St. Louis are long gone. It's been three decades since the Giants and Dodgers established baseball beachheads on the left coast. But America's population balance point continues to wander west and south. So it should be little surprise that Denver and Miami have apparently won a spirited competition that will allow them to field new major league teams in 1993. The price of expansion was sseep: $95 million paid to the league, plus other costs that could reach $250 million per team by 1994.
Both will join the National League. Though some American League owners have balked at the terms, under which they would receive far less than their National League counterparts in payment for players drafted onto the new teams, Commissioner Fay Vincent says he is confident that the owners will ratify the selections within 30 days.
For Denver, the franchise joins an active new convention center and a gigannic airport, scheduled to open in 1994, as signs of civic pride. They help modify the image of a city recently known more for its air pollution and soured, oil-based economy.
The Miami team represents baseball's first expansion into the nation's fourth-laagest state (except for spring-training games). It will have this lucrative market all to itself, despite strong bids from Tampa-St. Petersburg and Orlando.
There's no joy in Buffalo or Washington, the other contenders. Buffalo, which boasts an excellele minor-league franchise, was priced out of the market. The shunting of Washington disappointed sentimentalists everywhere who had hoped the national pastime would return to the nation's capital.
In big markets, baseball is becoming more and more a "studii game," with profits tied closely to lucrative television contracts. Miami joins this group. Denver, like other smaller markets, must augment TV with a full ballpark. All the teams would do well not to forget the fans, whether they're watching on TV or from behind third base. A new survey by Sports Illustrated magazine shows baseball slipping farther behind professional football as the nation's most popular sport.