Connect with us


Creators shed light on ‘Rise of the Rays’

Mark Parker



Opening Day 2023 (March 30) at Tropicana Field. Photo by Joe Hamilton.

Part 2 of 2.

Filmmakers can only devote so much time to myriad storylines in an hourlong documentary highlighting a nearly two-decade pursuit of Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay.

WEDU PBS debuted Rise of the Rays: A Devil of a Story Thursday night, following the team’s 4-0 romp over the Detroit Tigers to begin their 25th season in St. Petersburg. As the documentary details, Opening Day at Tropicana Field could have easily featured the Tampa Bay Twins, Athletics, Rangers, White Sox, Mariners, Giants or an unnamed National League team rather than the Tampa Bay Rays.

WEDU CEO Paul Grove believes highlighting years of futility will increase some viewers’ appreciation for something “everybody else wants.” The documentary conveys that after seven failed attempts to acquire an MLB franchise – and persistent relocation talks – fans should not take sold-out home openers in St. Petersburg for granted.

Rise of the Rays highlights the many cities mentioned as possible landing spots for the team just before final credits. Grove said he “loved” how the WEDU production team put the ending together.

“Orlando, Nashville – all these other cities might be coming to get our team and relocate the Tampa Bay Rays,” Grove said. “And guess what? There’s still that old nemesis, Tampa.”

Paul Grove, CEO of WEDU PBS. Photo provided.

The idea

Grove was a longtime friend of the late Rick Dodge, St. Petersburg’s assistant city administrator whose relentless efforts to land a baseball team never wavered. In 2019, he told Grove something over dinner that he rarely mentioned publicly.

Dodge relayed that after MLB owners awarded St. Pete the then-Devil Rays, Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf walked out of the meeting and said, “this one’s for you.”

“I said, ‘Rick, I never heard that story before,'” Grove said.”He goes, ‘yeah, I didn’t tell that many people.’ Rick was that humble of a person and never really wanted the focus of the story to be on him.”

Covid prevented an elaborate service when Dodge died unexpectedly in 2020, and his wife, Terry, asked Grove about a memorial. He made a 10-minute tribute video – available on WEDU’s website – which led to making the documentary, “the whole story.”

The Goals

“I think as a storyteller, the most important thing is to make it coherent,” Davis said. “This is a big, dense, complicated story. So, getting it down to an hour in a way that you hit that highlights and that people can follow along, and then you don’t have to be a baseball fan to understand it. That was my main goal.

“I mean, the story itself is compelling. Seven times you’re trying to get a baseball team, and baseball is clearly telling you they are not interested in having you join the club.”

Eric Davis, producer and director of Rise of the Rays.

Frank Morsani

The documentary’s other protagonist was Frank Morsani, a prominent local businessman and philanthropist who led ownership groups in Tampa and St. Petersburg. MLB’s fax, stating it broke its pledge to award him an expansion team, was delivered to Morsani by Grove himself.

“He was magnanimous – even in this horrible day in his life,” Grove relayed. “The Frank Morsani thing was huge for us.”

Grove noted that seeing an upstanding person “completely shattered” stuck with him for years. He recalled watching Rise of the Rays with Morsani and his wife Carol at their home and Brooksville.

Grove said the saga is “still very raw for them” 25 years later.

“They shared with me that Rick Dodge gave them a dog as a gift, an Australian shepherd, and they named him Dodger after Rick Dodge,” he added. “Even though there could have been hard feelings between Frank and the St. Petersburg folks, it wasn’t the case with Rick Dodge.

“And that once again goes to the character of both of them.”

Frank and Carole Morsani. Screengrab.

Jerry Reinsdorf

Reinsdorf also owns the National Basketball Association’s Chicago Bulls, and Grove called him one of MLB’s most powerful owners. The documentary highlights how Dodge convinced him to relocate the White Sox to St. Pete.

However, Illinois politicians unplugged an official clock to extend a midnight deadline for a new deal. Grove said the WEDU team spent two years planning Rise of the Rays, and he knew from the beginning that Reinsdorf had to play an integral part.

“He really respected and appreciated Rick Dodge,” Grove explained. “That’s the reason Jerry Reinsdorf agreed to do the interview. He wanted it to happen and had other people make sure it did happen.”

The late Rick Dodge. Screengrab.

The displacement of Gas Plant District residents

St. Petersburg city officials razed once-thriving, predominantly Black neighborhoods to build a baseball stadium without a team. Today, thousands of displaced residents and descendants are still waiting for local officials to fulfill long-broken promises.

However, the documentary doesn’t broach that subject. Grove “absolutely” expects PBS and WEDU, “the documentarian of record,” to receive phone calls and emails expressing concern.

Davis explained that the production team spent several days working on the Gas Plant aspects and discovered a filmmaker already documenting that history. He called it a “big, complex story” that became one of a handful they considered but did not include.

“We know it’s going to be told really well in some other place,” Davis said. “And it should be. But it just wasn’t one that rose into the tone and what we’re doing in this particular story.”

The ending

Grove lives on Davis Islands in Tampa and wouldn’t mind seeing the team play in Ybor City. However, he noted the film’s epilogue (the story arch concludes on Opening Day 1998) highlights St. Petersburg’s growth after it became a major league city.

Local officials, deciding if keeping the Rays is worth the trouble, might conclude that they must keep the team in St. Pete after watching the documentary, according to Grove.

As an out-of-town filmmaker, Davis believes he brings a different perspective to the extensive and ongoing saga. He decided to stop the documentary with the team’s first Opening Day as the next 25 years are “a whole other story.”

Grove said WEDU’s focus is telling diverse community stories. However, “if it’s something that feels like it makes sense at the right time,” he could “absolutely” envision a Rise of the Rays sequel.

Rise of the Rays: A Devil of a Story is streaming here.

RELATED READING: Rays documentary tells ‘A Devil of a Story’



Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

By posting a comment, I have read, understand and agree to the Posting Guidelines.

The St. Pete Catalyst

The Catalyst honors its name by aggregating & curating the sparks that propel the St Pete engine.  It is a modern news platform, powered by community sourced content and augmented with directed coverage.  Bring your news, your perspective and your spark to the St Pete Catalyst and take your seat at the table.

Email us:

Subscribe for Free

Share with friend

Enter the details of the person you want to share this article with.