TULSA'S Double-A team staying put amid speculation over deal with Cardinals

Tuesday, August 7th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ Talk of an affiliation between the minor league Tulsa Drillers and the St. Louis Cardinals may be premature, but one thing appears certain: The local Double-A franchise has no plans to move.

``We have a desirable market for Double-A,'' Tulsa assistant general manager Mike Melega said Monday. ``I definitely don't see us leaving this town.''

The Drillers already outdraw many Triple-A teams, but speculation has Tulsa soon sidling up to a new big league partner.

Owned by retired businessman Went Hubbard of New Hampshire, the Drillers have been affiliated since their inception in 1977 with the Texas Rangers, who have a Triple-A team in Oklahoma City.

But Tulsa could be free to shop around when its contract with the Rangers expires after the 2004 season. The Rangers' owner, Southwest Sports Group, appears to be signaling intentions for a change.

The sports and entertainment company, held by Tom Hicks, recently announced plans to build a minor league stadium in the Dallas suburb of Frisco, possibly for a Double-A team that could eventually be associated with the Rangers.

``They are talking to teams but nothing is set or finalized,'' said John Blake, the Rangers' vice president of communications.

Hubbard has said Tulsa's pact with the Rangers could be terminated sooner and says the Cardinals would be happy to have the Drillers.

St. Louis' fan base in northeastern Oklahoma rivals that of the Rangers. The Cardinals had a Triple-A team that left Tulsa for Louisville, Ky., in the mid-1970s because of a then-deteriorating stadium.

But any notions of a partnership with Tulsa would be premature, said Mike Jorgensen, the Cardinals' director of player development. Baseball rules bar discussions between the teams at this point.

``I haven't spoken to anybody with Tulsa,'' Jorgensen said.

The Cardinals have a contract with a Double-A team in New Haven, Conn., through next season.

Whichever major league team employs Tulsa's players, the Drillers anticipate a steady show of backing from local fans.

This year, 335,000, or about 4,800 fans a game, are expected at Drillers Stadium, which has been expanded and renovated several times since it opened in 1981.

That attendance is second in the Texas League behind Round Rock, Texas. In 1999, the Drillers drew a team-record 355,000 fans, or about 5,100 an outing.

Support has been bolstered by the Drillers' 29-15 record in the second half of the season. The club is one game behind Wichita in the league's Eastern Division.