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NL TO ANNOUNCE RULES FOR EXPANSION

Baseball's top secret will be revealed in Cleveland on Thursday when National League President Bill White announces the timetable and ground rules for a two-team expansion within four years.

"Everything will be in our report," White said. "Everyone's questions will be answered."Although he wouldn't comment further, White did say the league has decided how and when it will expand, how it will screen prospective franchise owners and what the criteria will be for league approval. The 26 major-league team owners will meet for two days in Cleveland, ending their sessions with the expansion announcement.

This surely will stir heated debate this summer in a dozen or more cities in the expansion chase - among them Orlando, St. Petersburg and Miami. Baseball officials say Florida most likely will get one of the new teams, with Denver, Buffalo, N.Y.; Washington, D.C.; and Phoenix, Ariz., the front-runners for the other.

Indianapolis, Columbus, Ohio; Vancouver, British Columbia; Sacramento, Calif.; Charlotte, N.C.; New Orleans; and East Rutherford, N.J., are other possibilities.

The awarding of franchises is not expected to be made until early next year, with the two teams going on the field either in 1993 or 1994. The purpose of the wait is twofold - to allow the new teams to start a farm system and build a suitable ballpark.

Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent said last week that "strong ownership" is the No. 1 requirement in the expansion process. Other obvious priorities include a regional TV market with the ability to reach a large cable audience and strong government support.

"No city has an edge over another as of now," Vincent said. "Everyone is starting on equal ground."

White is joined by Pittsburgh Pirates Chairman Douglas Danforth, Houston Astros Chairman John McMullen and New York Mets President Fred Wilpon on the four-man National League Expansion Committee that will screen candidates.

"These guys know how to keep a secret," said Pat Williams, the trigger man for William duPont III, who wants a team for Orlando. "They've been purposely tight-lipped, which is the way it should be, but it has left everyone in the dark. Thursday, we'll finally get a clear idea where we stand, what we have to do."

Baseball insiders regard Orlando as a prime target for the 1990s, a city on the rise. DuPont's dollars and Williams' energy are pluses, but Orlando doesn't have a ballpark like St. Petersburg's new SunCoast Dome. Williams insists Orlando will have a park in time.

The two new NL teams may have to pay an entry fee of $80 million to $100 million, a mighty hike from the $7 million the Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners paid in 1977 to join the American League.