It is no coincidence that the rise in sports collectibles came during the tremendous expansion of professional sports in this country. More teams, more players, more items to be collected, traded and preserved.

Get ready, more of it is on the way.

Got some baseball cards of some rookies who failed to live up to their promise; a program with the name of a veteran who has spent so much time riding the bench he has splinters or an autograph of some utility player who has more pounds than at-bats?

Help is on the way beginning Nov. 18. Major league baseball holds its latest expansion draft to stock the teams that will begin play in Tampa Bay and Arizona next spring. Already, the Devil Rays and Diamondbacks have been major players in the collectible field. Their logo and insignia has been available on uniforms, caps and other Major League Baseball Properties-sanctioned clothing for nearly two years since the teams were allowed to market such items.

As was the case with the Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies when they entered the National League in the early 1990s, the new gear was extremely popular among collectors who wanted the first issue of everything involving the expansion teams. The success of the Marlins,w ho won the World Series over Cleveland last month, and the Rockies who made the playoffs in their third year of existence made those early purchases by collectors wise moves.

There is every indication the Devil Rays and Diamondbacks will be equally as smart a buy. Major League baseball is heading into fertile if not virgin territory, just like they did with Florida and Colorado. The Tampa-St. Petersburg and Phoenix areas are two of the fastest growing in the country and have had flirtations with Major League baseball in the past.

In fact, the San Francisco Giants were all signed, sealed and delivered to Tampa in the 1980s only to back out when local taxpayers agreed to make improvements in chilly Candlestick Park. The Chicago White Sox had their bags packed for sunny Florida and a namechange to the Tampa-St. Pete Sox when the Illinois Legislature in the late 1980s agreed to unplug the clock and award funding for a new ballpark for Jerry Reinsdorf. The result was the new, if ill-designed Comiskey Park and Tampa-St. Pete was left waiting at the alter again.

But when baseball agreed to expand again, Tampa-St. Pete led the list; they had a structure already in place in the Thunderdome - home of the NHL Tampa Bay Lightning -- and had suitable funding in place to not only pay the franchise entrance fee but spend money on ballplayers.

Ditto for Arizona. Headed by a group led by Jerry Colangelo, who runs the NBA Phoenix Suns and now the NHL Phoenix Coyotes, Phoenix outbid several other applicants to secure an expansion team. Colangelo even had enough muscle to insist that his team, which has yet to play a game, be placed in the National League rather than the American League. His persistence caused a delay in plans for realignment in the major leagues next season. His reasoning was that Phoenix had been a long-time National League town because the Giants' top farm team played in Firebird Stadium and fans were more familiar with National League teams. The Diamondbacks will get to play in the National League West and have the Giants be a division rival.

The American League didn't mind securing Tampa Bay. They saw how successful the Marlins were in merchandising their product and didn't want to surrender the entire state to the National League. The American League Devil Rays will play in the American League East, replacing the Detroit Tigers who moved to the American League Central. Milwaukee agreed to move to the National League Central -- giving baseball its only six-team division -- when owner (and interim commissioner Bud Selig) agreed to the move last week. Milwaukee was originally a National League city with the Braves so the adjustment may actually be embraced by Brew town faithful.

When baseball first expanded in 1960 with the Los Angeles (then California, now Anaheim) Angels and Washington Senators (replacing the old Senators who moved to Minnesota to become the Twins who may be moving to Carolina to become whatever) who are now the Texas Rangers, the pickings were slim (unlike the expansion in the 1990s, those new entries could only pick from rosters in their own league rather than from both the American and National Leagues). Same for the New York Mets and Houston Astros entry two years later into the National League. The Mets were lucky; they developed a great pitching staff and won the World Series in 1969; The Angels, Rangers and Astros not only have never won a World Series but have yet to play in the Fall Classic.

The reason the Marlins and Rockies and now the Diamondbacks and Devil Rays don't have to suffer through decades of growing pains is free agency. Because they expect to fill their respective stadiums, Arizona and Tampa Bay will be able to go after high priced free agents, just as Wayne Huzienga did in building the 1997 World Champion Marlins. As a result, the two newest members of baseball fraternity will have their share of losses for a couple of years but have a better than even shot at using some of that money from filled stadiums (and merchandising snatched by wise collectors) into buying their way into the playoffs.

Current major league teams will be allowed to protect only 15 players off their 40-man rosters when the expansion draft is held; once a player is selected from the team, they are able to protect more and cannot lose more than three players. Some fairly decent talent figures to be available from a pool that will include high-priced veterans, up-and-down rookies and yes, that available pool of current free agents who would rather have their pocketbooks fattened for a couple of years rather than playing for less money on more talented teams.

Carefully watch some of the named taken in the draft; there may be some hidden gems thbat will increase their worth to collectors come next season when they have the opportunity to play every day.