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Community Voices: The Tampa Bays Rays – How We Got Where We Are Today

Peter Golenbock

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Welcome to the Catalyst’s Community Voices platform. We’ve curated community leaders and thinkers from all parts of our great city to speak on issues that affect us all. Visit our Community Voices page for more details.

This story is the first in a series about the Tropicana Field site by members of ASPEC – the Academy of Senior Professionals at Eckerd College.

Until the construction of the Florida Suncoast Dome, now the Trop, Tampa was the site of every major entertainment venue in Tampa Bay. The reason St. Petersburg won the race to build this baseball venue was that Mayor Ed Cole and the St. Petersburg council were sure that if the city built a baseball stadium, a ballclub soon would follow. Despite a warning by baseball commissioner Peter Uebberoth that it was a bad risk, the council voted in 1985 to approve $138 million of 30-year, tax-exempt revenue bonds sold by the Pinellas Sports Authority

For years the stadium lay empty, except for special sales and events, plus hosting the Lightning until the hockey team built its new arena in Tampa. After our sports authority failed to attract several major league teams, Major League Baseball welcomed the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks as expansion teams on March 9, 1995.

The Devil Rays and the City of St. Petersburg agreed on a 30-year lease, which included a clause that forbade the Devil Rays from negotiating to play in any stadium other than Tropicana Field before 2027.  Any violation would result in “irreparable harm and damages.”         

The Devil Rays finished their inaugural season in 1998 with a 63–99 record. Under owner Vince Naimoli, who was more interested in making money than winning, the Devil Rays won as few as 55 games (in 2002) and never more than 70 (2004). That first year, 2,506,293 fans flocked to see the team play. By the time Naimoli sold a 48 percent major share of the team to Stuart Sternberg in May 2004, attendance had fallen to 1,271 911, or about 15,000 fans per game. 

“Devil” was dropped from the name for the 2008 season.

Under Sternberg, a Wall Street billionaire who kept salaries low while constantly complaining about low attendance, fans mostly stayed home and watched the games on TV, despite the Rays going to the World Series in 2008. Between 2015 and 2017, attendance never rose above 1,287,054, and Sternberg started making noise that he wanted to move the team out of St. Petersburg. 

In 2019 Sternberg proposed that a new stadium be built in Ybor City and that the team play half its season in Montreal. Tampa seemed eager, but after St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman gave Tampa three years to raise the money for the stadium, Tampa failed so miserably that Sternberg is now stuck with having to stay in St. Petersburg if he wants to keep the team in the Tampa Bay area. He continues to insist he still wants to play half the season in Montreal.        

Sternberg is now proposing a spanking new stadium in St. Petersburg to house the Rays and his soccer team, the Rowdies. The catch is that Mayor Kriseman apparently wants the Rays to pay a much larger share of the cost of building the new stadium than the Rays feel is proper. St. Petersburg council members have been meeting with the Rays, and at this writing it appears that the council has told Sternberg to wait until a new mayor is elected before continuing negotiations.

What’s going to happen next? The Rays are free to leave in 2027. Whether or not they will is still anyone’s guess.     

Peter Golenbock has written 10 New York Times bestsellers, including Dynasty: The New York Yankees, 1949-1964, The Bronx Zoo and Wild, High and Tight: The Life and Death of Billy Martin. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Wendy Grassi, an active ASPEC member.

ASPEC is founded on the principle that it is important for adults to remain involved and active. The organization’s 300+ members, whether in transition from one career to another or “retired,” are most engaged when they participate in lifelong learning and share a community of interests with others who believe that every stage of life can be a time of rejuvenation, enrichment, accomplishment, and meaningful productivity. Click here to learn more.

 

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Ernest Mahaffey

    Ernest Mahaffey

    May 25, 2021at9:57 am

    Great! I hope this gets followed up with an interview! Sincerely, Ernie

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