When Ray Liotta whispered the now famous words, “If you build it, he will come”, he probably never imagined them becoming one of the most misquoted lines of our time. Many of us have used the sentence countless times, mistakenly substituting the word “they” for the word “he”. In the movie Field of Dreams, Ray was referring to Shoeless Joe Jackson, a real life baseball legend from the early 20th century. Today of course, we use the quote when talking about venues, attractions, and all sorts of commercial construction.
Back in the late ’80s, it became the mantra for luring Major League Baseball to the Tampa Bay area. Both Tampa and Saint Petersburg launched major campaigns to bring a team to their city, courting existing clubs like the White Sox, Mariners, and San Francisco. As with many other major issues historically, both cities worked hard to one up the other in its attempt to win a deal for their town. When Saint Petersburg convinced it’s taxpayers into building an arena, even before landing a team, Tampa’s bid became a moot point, and soon thereafter baseball came to Pinellas County.
Stu Sternberg, the owner of the Tampa Bay Rays, has announced that the team will begin actively considering a new stadium site for the team. Sternberg said he will be open to any new location in the area, regardless of the county. To which Saint Petersburg’s mayor, Bill Foster replied, “hold up just a minute there”. (OK, maybe not those exact words) The Rays current deal with their arena, Tropicana Field, runs through 2027 and prohibits them from even talking to another city about relocation. This brings us back to our original quote, “if you build it, they will come”.
Saint Petersburg built a baseball venue and was awarded a team. But soon after, low attendance became an issue. And a new catch phrase emerged; If you win, they will come. Well, the Rays have had two back-to-back winning seasons and attendance is still a real issue. This year the team has been at the top of the standings and spent more promotional dollars than any other team in the MLB. Yet attendance remains far below expectations. So what’s the excuse now? Economy? Yes that’s a legitimate factor, but the economy also affected many other baseball cities who still manage to maintain larger attendance averages than the Rays.
It would seem that Sternberg has a well-founded reason for wanting to move the team. Fortunately he isn’t talking about considering other markets. You can be certain that those “other markets” are already brainstorming ways to lure the Rays to their city.
So what’s the solution? Whatever it is, it won’t happen soon. But decisions need to be made to get the wheels in motion. And as all sides begin to assemble their legal teams to hash out an agreement, one thing really needs to be considered; who benefits from all this? If you answered Tampa Bay, you win a free cowbell. And there lies the solution.
The tri-county area; Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, even Manatee, would all be affected by any decision on where the Rays end up. So why do our cities insist on fighting over where the team plays? Aren’t they the TAMPA BAY Rays? I realize that the Trop was funded by city tax payer dollars, (as well tourist dollars). So whatever the outcome, some sort of decision needs to be made about that arena which will become a white elephant and a possible reimbursement to Saint Pete if the team relocates across the bay. Keep in mind even moving to Tampa doesn’t guarantee more fans in the seats, although statistics show that attendance is directly affected by location and population density.
I think our cities need to leave their respective egos at the conference room door, and start thinking as a strong unified major market. We can’t risk losing Major League Baseball to another state. Nor can we continue to bicker over binding contracts and lawsuits. We need a solution that will keep the Rays here – in Tampa Bay – long past 2027. We need private sector parties to step up to the plate with ideas and money. We need city mayors to put away their differences and work together on this issue, the same way they should be working on a viable solution to funding mass transit in the area. But I’ll leave that for another day.
That’s my take. What’s yours?