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I love baseball. Always have. I played it as a kid, coached it as a young adult, and then played it again. Like many St. Petersburg natives and longtime residents, I grew up watching the Cardinals and Mets train, listening to the voice of Al Lang Stadium’s singing hot dog vendor, Tommy Walton, and strategically positioning myself around the west St. Pete training complex to get my 1986 Mets World Series hat autographed by the champs.
In 4th grade, while the newly constructed Florida Suncoast Dome sat empty, save for maybe a New Kids on the Block concert, I asked our class’s guest speaker, the then-mayor Bob Ulrich, if we’d ever get a team of our own. I remember him assuring me, if only to make this kid happy. A few years later, as the San Francisco Giants considered/threatened relocation, I asked my dad to drive me to the dome so that I could take pictures and mail them, along with a note, to Giants Owner Robert Lurie. I am almost certain I included something about us ‘building it so they would come,’ paraphrasing the famous line from the movie Field of Dreams. Later, when they didn’t come, I vented in a column I wrote for my middle school publication, under the headline ‘A Giant Joke.’
Two decades later, I found myself regularly sitting across the table from another team owner and his top executives, though I wasn’t trying to bring baseball here. I was trying to save it. As a public servant representing the people of St. Petersburg and working to bring clarity to the most stubborn of issues, I approached each negotiation not as a fan of the sport or the Rays, but as a student of the business of baseball, a fan of St. Petersburg, a believer in our future, and a steward of our tax dollars.
In early 2016, thanks to the constructive relationship forged between the City of St. Petersburg and the Tampa Bay Rays organization, we successfully negotiated a deal to allow the team three years to explore all of Tampa Bay for a new stadium location. It was the first time that such an agreement had been reached in the team’s history. Frustratingly, no progress was made and a new deal hasn’t been reached since.
At this point, all eyes may be on 2027 when the team’s Use Agreement with the City of St. Petersburg concludes. However, 2027 is not a deadline. Given what appears to be the Rays organization’s most recent attempt at a bidding war (“I do know that we’ve got partners potentially on both sides of the Bay who are excited and interested in doing what we’d like to do,” the team’s principal owner told the Tampa Bay Times) and the time still required to find a site, negotiate a new agreement, and build a stadium, it is likely that they will seek one-year extensions of their Use Agreement until their new home is ready. That could be whenever. In other words, after 15 years of this, I’m not sure what inning we’re in any more but it’s definitely not yet the 9th.
To be clear, the Rays organization understands the value of playing in the Sunshine City and in this top media market, just as they did when they proposed a waterfront stadium in 2007. Judging by the banners now hanging from the catwalks and the estimated value of the organization, they have succeeded both on and off the field. St. Petersburg has been really good to the Tampa Bay Rays. It will only be better. A move to Tampa may increase attendance, but in a league that saw record revenues prior to the pandemic, even while attendance declined, it’s clear that television contracts and new suites are at least as important as new seats.
The way the dome came to be was wrong. Wounds in the community still aren’t healed and considerable work remains to honor the site’s past. But the boldness of a generation ago, of building a stadium without a team – and then being awarded one – should inspire today’s city leaders to proceed expeditiously with the rebuilding of a new neighborhood at the Tropicana Field, with or without a stadium, with or without the Rays’ participation. It is certainly encouraging that Mayor Ken Welch has announced that he will do so early this summer.
It is the Rays, not the City of St. Petersburg, that must figure out their future. They have made a lot of money, but they can’t afford to see another site taken off the table.
Kevin King is the former Chief of Staff and Chief of Policy and Public Engagement for the City of St. Petersburg.