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Roy Peter Clark: Does St. Pete need the Rays?

Roy Peter Clark

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Photo courtesy of St. Pete Flickr.

This essay is not about whether or not St. Pete should share the Tampa Bay Rays with the city of Montreal – “Les Rayons.” It’s not about whether St. Pete or Tampa should invest in a new stadium. It’s not about how our mayor and City Council should respond to uncertainty about the team’s future.

I like the Rays, root for the Rays, attend my share of games, and have, at last count, 18 Tampa Bay Rays baseball caps. I live four miles from the Trop. I know where to park for seven dollars. I like the comfort of a domed stadium when it is 98 degrees outside, with thunderstorms threatening, on a Sunday afternoon in July.

I hope something can be worked out that satisfies all interests. Do we want the Rays? I would vote yes. Do we need the Rays? I would say no.

That position should give us comfort. Few cities in the world, I would argue, have improved as dramatically as St. Petersburg, Florida, over the last quarter century. We’ve changed for the better. In countless ways.

When we arrived in St. Petersburg in 1977, the city was a Johnny Carson joke. The world’s largest open-air mausoleum. The city of the newly wed and nearly dead. “Sleep in the city that never wakes up” was one proposed slogan. The poor, the old, the homeless, the mentally ill, the drug addicted walked the streets of St. Pete like something out of a George Romero zombie movie. 

The glory days of the 1920s real estate boom had long passed the city by. Doc Webb’s famous drugstore – farewell to dancing chickens and mermaids – was leveled. The Vinoy Hotel was in ruins, a home for vermin and vagrants.

To remember that vacant city and to see us now feels nothing short of a miracle.

Under the leadership of a series of good mayors, Ulrich, Fischer, and the two Ricks, St. Pete rose from the ashes. Getting a baseball team really helped. Tropicana Field and the Rays became one cornerstone of an urban revival.

What was once an old gas plant became a destination, and even though attendance remained low, a fan base grew along with television ratings. We beat the Red Sox to get into the World Series. Evan Longoria become more popular than Eva Longoria. More and more people  – not just tourists or snowbirds – witnessed the rising.

Here’s the key to thinking about the future of baseball in St. Petersburg: the Rays did not cause the St. Pete revival, but they contributed to it. They were one star in a constellation: the restoration of the Vinoy; the growth of the innovation district and major medical facilities; the construction of high-rise apartments and condos; the creation of museum spaces, art districts, and theater venues; the expansion of USF St. Pete and St. Pete College, including into Midtown; the Grand Prix; the emergence of Beach Drive as a magnet for hipsters, young and old; a restaurant boom with countless coffee shops and craft beer joints. My favorite activity may be walking from the Banyan Café down Central Avenue to 4th Street.

When you lose a cornerstone, it’s possible for the cathedral to stand if other strong stones are in place. And I think they are. You can also replace a missing stone. If the Rays leave – even if they move across the Bay – I predict that whatever replaces Tropicana Field will be spectacular. A new municipal Pier will dazzle us. 

Moreover, we will remain a baseball town forever. A time will come, I can see it now – the Rays may be in Las Vegas or San Antonio — but Spring Training will return to St. Pete, bringing back memories of Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial and Mickey Mantle.

Name a professional sports team in Florida that draws all the fans it wants no matter its level of success. The Lightning maybe? Not the Rays or Bucs or Marlins or Jaguars or even the Dolphins.

I want the Rays to stay. I want them to be successful. I want them to beat the Yankees, the Red Sox, and the stinkin’ Phillies. But do we need them? No. And that says good things about the City of St. Pete, that never got to put its name on the team in the first place. 

[Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at the Poynter Institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times, since 1979.]     

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7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Bob Stewart

    June 27, 2019 at 3:59 pm

    Peter Roy: A very fine article. The city of St. Petersburg is truly in a win – win situation.
    However, regarding the listing of “a series of good mayors” I can only remember one Rick (Baker). Who am I missing?
    Perhaps you are thinking of Rick Dodge…right? He was never an elected public official, but rather an Assistant City Manager.
    This Rick definitely helped set the stage for MLB to come to town.
    Sorry to be sticky, bu if I am wrong please set me straight.
    Thanks.

    • Avatar

      Roy Clark

      June 28, 2019 at 1:09 pm

      Bob: Thinking of Rick Baker and Rick Kriseman. I remember Rick vs. Rick. I voted for Rick!

  2. Avatar

    Beth Reynolds

    June 28, 2019 at 8:19 am

    Thank you RPC, fine article for sure. I agree. I love my Rays, go as often as I can because I love baseball. But if spring training returned to St Pete or a minor league team came back to town I would be just as happy. I want them to stay but understand their need to move. St Pete has become so fantastic that baseball is just one draw and maybe they need to be where they are the only draw in town. It is nice to be in a position that we are not in dire need of them to stay.

  3. Avatar

    Richard Ulrich

    June 28, 2019 at 9:51 pm

    St. Pete should come to terms with the Rays no longer being here or a part of Tampa Bay. Whether it was the Namoili ownership alienating the entire the community or our area simply not being able to support a team, from a business standpoint, it doesn’t make financial sense for the Rays to stay. I agree with Martin Fennelly’s column “Show us the money” but would it really make a difference if the Rays disclosed their finances? Their Montreal announcement was basically an ad for what city wants and can afford to support them. The City of St. Pete should begin negotiations with Rays on leaving asap. Make the best of a bad situation and get something financially in return for allowing them to leave, versus nothing in the future.

  4. Avatar

    George Retkes

    June 28, 2019 at 10:54 pm

    Rowdies. end of story

  5. Avatar

    Sarah Hoddinott

    June 30, 2019 at 8:34 am

    Wonderfully insightful article. We are new to St Pete and love love love the Rays. Hoping against hope they will stay. What if the entire Trop site were redeveloped into a state of the art stadium/convention center / hotel complex with the new stadium used as convention space during the off season. With that kind of multi use perhaps a better combo of govt and private financing could be put together.

  6. Avatar

    Al Bartolotta

    July 1, 2019 at 2:59 pm

    Very well said Roy. St. Pete will be fine without the Rays even though I will miss them. I think their eventual loss speaks more to the lack of an efficient regional transit system more so than anything having to do with St. Pete.

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