PALM BEACH, Fla., March 9 -- With Major League Baseball still mired in the longest labor dispute in the game's history, owners Thursday went ahead and awarded expansion franchises to Phoenix and Tampa-St. Petersburg. The two new teams -- the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Arizona Diamondbacks -- will pay an expansion fee of $130 million and will begin play for the 1998 season. Their league and division assignments will be determined at a later date. Phoenix and St. Petersburg were recommended by the Expansion Committee Tuesday night as the next cities to be awarded franchises. They will become the 29th and 30th major league teams. Representatives from St. Petersburg, Phoenix, Orlando and northern Virginia made their presentations Tuesday. The five groups, which include two from the northern Virginia area, made presentations lasting from 15 to 30 minutes. 'I'm very pleased to announce baseball has decided to add teams in Phoenix and Tampa-St. Petersburg,' said Bud Selig, the chairman of Major League Baseball's ruling Executive Council. 'Major League Baseball is very excited to be moving into two such outstanding markets with two excellent ownership groups.' Selig said baseball will consider adding more teams in the near future. 'I expect the clubs will continue to consider expanding and it will take place sooner rather than later,' said Selig. Selig also indicated that a possible expansion into Mexico might be considered. John Harrington of the Boston Red Sox, the chairman of the Expansion Committee, said he felt the two areas selected were clearly the best picks.
'Our committee members put a great deal of time and effort in deciding, first, whether to expand right now and second, where to put the new teams,' said Harrington. 'We strongly believe the time is right and these two cities are clearly the best choices.' The two new clubs will be the 13th and 14th expansion franchises in baseball history. The first expansion took place in 1961 when the Los Angeles Angels and the Washington Senators joined the American League. The New York Mets and the Houston Colt .45s joined the National League in 1962, the Kansas City Royals and the Seattle Pilots joined the American League and the Montreal Expos and the San Diego Padres joined the National League in 1969, the Seattle Mariners and the Toronto Blue Jays joined the American League in 1977 and the Colorado Rockies and the Florida Marlins joined the National League in 1993. William Usery, the mediator in the negotiations between owners and striking players, said Thursday he has advised the owners to put their best offer on the table next week when negotiations resume. 'We hope to get things going next week,' said Usery. 'It's up to the owners now. They're the moving party. I'm urging them to put their best offer on the table. We need to get this thing resolved.' Owners and union officials have missed a March 5 deadline they said they needed to reach an agreement that would allow the season to start as scheduled with major leaguers.