Thrive

Rays documentary tells ‘A Devil of a Story’

Part One of a two-part series.

A new documentary chronicling St. Petersburg’s prolonged quest for a Major League Baseball team ends with Opening Day 1998, but features unmistakable parallels to the current era.

Like the on-field product, years of futility preceded innovative thinking and success. There was political wrangling, cross-bay competition, stadium debates and cloaked dealings among MLB officials and owners.

Rise of the Rays: A Devil of a Story debuts on WEDU PBS at 9 p.m. Thursday, following the first game of the franchise’s 25th anniversary season. The hour-long documentary’s primary protagonist is the late Rick Dodge, an assistant city administrator who worked tirelessly to bring a team to St. Pete.

Retired broadcaster Tom Korum serves as the narrator, and he called Dodge “the best utility guy in the game.” Former Tampa Tribune columnist Joe Henderson said he was “the most powerful assistant city manager in the history of the United States.”

“Rick Dodge could make things move,” added sportscaster Al Keck. “Simply by talking to people behind the scenes.”

Rick Dodge

Rise of the Rays begins by highlighting St. Petersburg’s rich Spring Training history, which started with the St. Louis Browns in 1914. The New York Yankees followed in 1925, and the documentary showed a picture of baseball legend Mickey Mantle and crooner Dean Martin at Mastry’s Bar.

Tampa is also steeped in baseball lore, however, and Fred McGriff – also a former Devil Ray – will likely become the fourth native to reach the Hall of Fame. It had the Tampa Bay Buccanneers and, at that time, the Tampa Bay Rowdies.

The city also boasted a potential team owner, Frank Morsani.

Morsani rose to local prominence through his successful auto dealerships and philanthropic efforts. He now lives in Brooksville with his wife, Carol.

Morsani serves as the documentary’s other protagonist and led the region’s pursuit of major league baseball in 1982. The first of seven strikeouts began with him buying a 42% stake in the Minnesota Twins to move the team to Tampa.

“Baseball asked him to basically back out of the deal, and there would be future considerations that he would end up with a team later,” said Marc Topkin, a longtime sportswriter for the Tampa Bay Times.

That was not the case.

Efforts from both sides of the bay to land the Oakland Athletics, Texas Rangers, Chicago White Sox, Seattle Mariners, the San Francisco Giants and a National League expansion team subsequently failed. If those deals didn’t collapse at the last minute, MLB and government officials extended deadlines or stopped the clock.

Morsani bluntly stated that “honorable people were not involved.”

St. Petersburg city officials decided to build a stadium without a baseball team to gain an advantage over Tampa. What was supposed to go in the Gateway area – near the Gandy Bridge and about halfway between the cities – wound up in the predominantly African American Gas Plant District.

The construction site in the historic Gas Plant District.

City council members believed a ballfield closer to downtown St. Pete would bolster its economic impact. Henderson said the move caused an uproar among Tampa residents, including the late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

“George Steinbrenner … told me in no uncertain terms, and I printed it, ‘do not proceed with St. Petersburg building this stadium. We’re not going to guarantee you a team out of this, and you’re going to be sorry if you do,’” relayed Henderson.

City officials spent $138 million to build the Florida Suncoast Dome anyway. It opened in 1990 and hosted nearly every event imaginable – including a massive yard sale – besides baseball.

One of the most infamous moments in Rise of the Rays depicts Illinois lawmakers unplugging a clock during a legislative meeting when they failed to reach a midnight deadline to keep the White Sox. The documentary is WEDU CEO Paul Grove’s brainchild, and he told the Catalyst, “That one story all by itself could be a documentary.”

“I actually call that the dastardly clock manipulation in Illinois,” Grove added. “Time stood still.”

White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf played a prominent role and sympathized with Dodge’s misfortunes. Grove expressed the importance of interviewing Reinsdorf for Rise of the Rays and said he agreed without hesitation.

After that debacle, Morsani agreed to spearhead an ownership group for a St. Petersburg expansion team. As Korun noted, stakeholders believed 1991 was “Tampa Bay’s time.”

However, another group led by Steve Porter unexpectedly joined the mix. Despite years of promises, MLB officials rejected Morsani’s bid via fax.

“I never have gotten over it, really,” Morsani said.

Relocating the San Francisco Giants to St. Petersburg was one of seven near misses.

While he would eventually recover monetarily, Morsani subsequently filed for bankruptcy. Porter only had a fraction of his claimed financial support, and Blockbuster founder Wayne Huizenga received the expansion’s Miami Marlins.

“It almost made me wonder, if I was prone to conspiracies, that baseball knew that the other group was shaky,” Henderson said. “Morsani would have been very difficult to turn down.”

Morsani bowed out while Dodge persevered, with Naimoli now leading Tampa Bay’s ownership group. After another “done deal” with the Giants fell through, the two sued Major League Baseball.

Korun noted that “lawsuits are not a new threat to baseball, but they are a very, very effective strategy.”

League officials and owners agreed to award Tampa Bay its baseball team if Naimoli dropped his suit. The Devil of a Story ends on Opening Day 1998 with the first Tampa Bay Devil Rays game at Tropicana Field.

Grove and Eric Davis, who produced and directed the Rise of the Rays, offered their thoughts on making the documentary, recent relocation discussions and the ongoing efforts to redevelop the historic Gas Plant District:

Friday: Part Two – a behind-the-scenes look at Rise of the Rays.

 

 

Mark Parker

View Comments

  • Proof that the promises made to the Gas Plant/Laurel Park communities were All LIES. Residents displaced for other reasons, not a baseball team but to just get them from being so close to downtown.

  • My husband was successful in getting the Devil Rays in 1995.
    I am proud of what he accomplished in the Tampa Bay Area..
    Go Rays

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