11/23/2005 12:00AM

MLB's flirtation with Vegas continues

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LAS VEGAS - Start up the rumor mill again.

On Tuesday, the Florida Marlins announced that negotiations had fallen apart again on attempts to get a baseball-only stadium built in Miami, and that Major League Baseball had given the franchise the go-ahead to look into possible relocation.

Before that news was even able to heat up the Hot Stove League, Jayson Stark of ESPN.com had a lengthy article posted proclaiming Las Vegas the 2-1 favorite to catch the big one.

Last year, Vegas and Portland, Ore., were unable to land the Montreal Expos, who became the Washington Nationals, but both cities made strong bids. In the aftermath of that decision, several Marlins executives paid an "unofficial" visit to Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman last December, which will likely lead to more talks - and more rumors.

Las Vegas doesn't have a major-league-worthy stadium - Cashman Field, home of the 51s, the Dodgers' AAA affiliate, is woefully inadequate. But if you see how quickly deals can be made to put up multibillion-dollar casinos with thousands of hotel rooms and all the other amenities, then you wouldn't doubt Vegas could build a world-class facility in plenty of time before the Marlins' lease runs out at Dolphin Stadium at the end of the 2007 season, or when their three one-year options run out at the end of 2010.

The biggest hurdle, as always, is the existence of sports wagering here (and it probably didn't thrill MLB to see Starks blatantly assigning odds to each city's chances), but the resistance is lessening with each passing year as more and more leagues come to see how well-regulated the industry is here - and also as the country continues to be desensitized to gambling as a whole.

A different big fish to be honored

Let's move on from talking about Marlins and talk about a Shark - Tark the Shark.

When people try to come up with an image of sports in Las Vegas, it's a pretty good bet they'll think about the UNLV Runnin' Rebels of the 1980's and early 1990's, with coach Jerry Tarkanian sitting on the bench and chewing his trademark towel.

Tark, with his recruitment of top players to this desert outpost and an exciting run-and-gun style, put UNLV on the map and made it a national power in basketball.

On Saturday night, prior to the 7:30 p.m. game vs. Nevada, the court at the Thomas & Mack Center will be named after him, an honor that was a long time in coming. It was his team's constant sellouts at the Las Vegas Convention Center that caused the T&M, which opened in 1983, to be built in the first place.

Football contests near final four

It might be a holiday weekend, but the football handicapping contests at Leroy's and the Stardust will go on as planned this Friday night.

The Leroy's Money Talks Invitational, which takes place in the Riviera sports book from 8-9 p.m. and airs live on KDWN AM-720, will pit journalist Buzz Daly vs. professional gambler Bill Krackman (a pseudonym). Each of the 16 contestants put up $2,500 of their own money and face off in head-to-head elimination battles each week, with each handicapper giving seven plays graded from $110 to $770. The person who earns the most money (or loses the least) advances in the single-elimination format. Daly and Krackman will be trying to join Bryan Leonard, Chicago Pete Ventrella, and Nick Bogdanovich in the semifinals. Last week, Leonard went 4-3 with a profit of $60 to defeat Alf Musketa of Vegas Insider (4-3 with a loss of $140). Bogdanovich won a rematch by going 6-1 for a profit of $1,330 to knock off Doc Moseman of Doc's Sports, who went 3-4 for a loss of $1,400.

Bogdanovich, who made his name for booking big action at Binion's Horseshoe, the Stratosphere, and Mandalay Bay, recently was let go as the Golden Nugget's sports book manager by the casino's new ownership. He is 13-8 in his three appearances in the Leroy's contest, continuing the strong showing of those who work behind the betting counters.

* In the Stardust Invitational, which takes place from 9-10 p.m. in the Stardust sports book and also airs on KDWN, Ed Salmons, the sports book manager at the Las Vegas Hilton, takes on the one-named professional gambler known as Fezzik. In the first round, Salmons went 6-1 to eliminate Imperial Palace sports book manager Rich Dressler, who went 5-1-1. So, between the Leroy's and Stardust contests, the bookmakers have gone a combined 24-10-1 (71 percent not counting the push). All other handicappers in the two contests are a combined 118-145-10 (45 percent). Last week, Steve Cofield went 4-3 to beat out Tim Trushel's 3-4 and join Marc Lawrence and Andy Iskoe in the semifinals of the $10,000 winner-take-all contest.

* This Saturday marks the final week of Leroy's College Challenge, a $250 buy-in contest that anyone could enter. It has a first prize of $45,500 and pays down to 30th place. Fezzik leads with a record of 51-26 (66 percent), with a contestant using an alias of "Maj Ent" in second at 50-27 and a group of nine handicappers at 48-29. The leaders' plays and consensus selections will be available late Friday night at americanwagering.com/college_challenge.html.

* Those looking for the top NFL handicappers' selections in the Las Vegas Hilton SuperContest or the Station Casinos' The Challenge can go to the respective sports books or look online at www.jimfeist.com/contests.