Wednesday, June 30, 2010

We Built It, They Came, and They Should Stay: Why St. Petersburg, Florida, should forever remain the home of the Rays

The Rays should stay in St. Petersburg, Florida because I say so! There. End of blog entry. No, just kidding: in fact, we’re just getting started, kiddies, so settle down with a nice cup of tea, get comfy and prepare to hear a fantastic, yet true story!

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful little city tucked along the shore of Tampa Bay. It was and is a city where “quality of life” infuses the visionary design of the place, because the planners of the city were far, far, FAR ahead of their time. In fact, they are being imitated to this day in faux communities like Disney’s “Celebration”, but St. Petersburg, Florida, is the real, authentic deal. They (the aforementioned early planners of the city) set aside a loooooooooooong series of green, downtown waterfront parks all along Tampa Bay and decreed that there shall be no development along the waterfront, that we shall keep it as green space for the citizens to enjoy. This was very radical, controversial, yet oh so wise of the early planners of St. Pete, because never did a concrete jungle arise along the city’s waterfront, which would have rendered it decidedly unremarkable, like so many cities’ waterfronts, which are just a wall of condos, etc. No, St. Petersburg’s waterfront is, to this day, a rare jewel: a user-friendly string of walkable, bikeable, green parks that make St. Pete unique. But the wise planners didn’t stop there. Oh no, my wide-eyed kiddies, they also decided to lay out the road system of St. Petersburg in a logical grid pattern, with many ways to head east, west, north and south, to get in and out and around the city, so that there would not be traffic jamming up on any one artery. And because many neighborhoods of the city were built in the 1920’s, pre everything revolving around the automobile, they are charming, human-scale neighborhoods full of sidewalks and front porches and many of them are walking distance to downtown. The combination of visionary planning that included lots of green space, logical, efficient main roads/arteries, and the charming neighborhoods that sprang up within the city around the downtown and beyond, resulted in one of the most livable, user-friendly cities in the United States of America. In short: St. Petersburg rocks.

But there is more to St. Petersburg than being gorgeous and green, charming and user-friendly (I know, I’ve said “user-friendly” three times, but it bears repeating), accessible and sporting a downtown renaissance of restaurants, shopping, art and entertainment that I haven’t even touched on here. Yes, kiddies, there is something more to the character of this city, something infusing yet transcending all that I’ve mentioned, something...magical. There is a certain ...well, a cockeyed, optimistic belief among St. Petersburgers that our city can do anything it sets its collective mind to. There is a wild imagination to this place, a certain “dreaming big” quality, and when it comes to major league baseball, this unique St. Petersburg quality translated into the real live version of “if you build it, they will come.”

St. Petersburg has a very rich and storied tradition and history of minor league baseball and major league spring training, and due to this long-standing and intense love of baseball in the city, one day, long about the 1980’s, it’s leaders decided: hey, why couldn’t we attract a major league baseball franchise?

So, they set about doing this and, my rapt kiddies, much more went into that concerted, never-say-die, unbelievable, twisty-turny effort than could possibly fit into one blog entry in terms of their Herculean and, some might say, certifiably crazy efforts to bring a MLB team here. They simply decided they were going to do it--that it was going to happen--and from there it was basically a case of “Just what makes that little old ant, think he’ll move that rubber tree plant? Everyone knows an ant can’t move a rubber tree plant, but he’s got HIGH HOPES, he’s got HIGH HOPES, he’s got HIGH APPLE PIE IN THE SKY HOPES!” The heroically determined city leaders kept trying to move the rubber tree plant that is MLB. Result? Well, basically a lot of frustrated ants. Frustrated, yet unthwarted! They somehow kept their high apple pie in the sky hopes!

They decided: okay, so all our efforts to attract a team thus far have failed. So what! What IF, instead of giving up like a sane city would, we instead opt to BUILD A MAJOR-LEAGUE BASEBALL STADIUM ANYWAY, with no prospect whatsoever for getting a team?!! Wouldn’t that crazy-yet-wildly-hopeful act INSPIRE major league baseball to give us a team?!!! Yeah!!! That sounds like a plan! Let’s DO THIS!” And, wee ones, that is what I personally love so much about St. Petersburg, Florida: that crazy, high-apple-pie-in-the-sky-hopes quality! What other city would actually build a major league baseball stadium when it has no team and no realistic prospect of ever getting a team? But that’s St. Pete. It operates both in the real world and in the world of high apple pie in the sky hopes, and therein lies its wonderfulness.

So, they built a stadium. Let me repeat that point because it bears same: the city of St. Petersburg, with the help of the county of Pinellas, built a stadium specifically to attract a major league baseball team, designed specifically for baseball, with basically NO PROSPECT of a team coming here. Now, I ask you, is that the craziest yet also somehow the most wonderful, imaginative, chutzpah-infused and endearing thing you ever heard of a city up and doing? And I further ask you, doesn't that investment and effort, and the fact that without it, we (the Tampa Bay area) would not have the Rays at all, count for something? Doesn't it render St. Petersburg as the home of the Rays? As Mayor Bill Foster recently pointed out, because of everything the city of St. Petersburg invested to attract a team in the first place and everything the city and its citizens continue to do to support the team, "while the team is a regional asset, it's St. Petersburg's asset", and “St. Petersburg residents have more skin in the game than anyone.” This is our team. St. Pete built the dome in 1986 and there it sat for nine years, mute testament to one city's cock-eyed optimism, dogged determination and investment to bring a major league team home. In 1995, the improbable happened and MLB awarded us an expansion team. On March 31st, 1998, the first pitch was thrown.

The Tampa Bay Rays belong to the entire Tampa Bay area, but St. Pete is their home. We built it, they came. They belong here. And not only is it what’s best for the city of St. Petersburg, Florida, it is what’s best for the Rays. Why do I say that? Oh, I’m so glad you asked!

To all the Tampacentric folks who argue the team should move to their fair city, let me refute your arguments, one by one:

Tampacentric Argument Number One: “The team should be in a central location to the entire Tampa Bay area, and since everyone knows that Tampa is the center of the UNIVERSE, the team should be in Tampa.”

Retort From the World of FACTS: St. Petersburg IS centrally located to the ENTIRE Tampa Bay area, including the southern populous and fast-growing counties of Sarasota and Manatee, which are where many fans who attend the games hail from. Fans drive from Pinellas, Manatee, and Sarasota to Tampa to attend Bucs and Lightning games, so surely the good folks of Tampa can return the favor and drive to Pinellas to attend Rays games if they are true fans. Just because “the Tampa BAY area” contains the word “Tampa” in it, does not make the city of Tampa the geographic or population center of the Tampa BAY area. It is one important city in our area, but only one of several (and NOT the one that moved heaven and earth to bring the Rays here), so why should it house all the professional sports teams of the area? Why not spread the joy, especially since St. Petersburg is the city that actually took the risks and made the investment to land us a major league baseball team in the first place? Plus we have a CONTRACT through 2027, but let’s not focus on that little detail. Yet.

Tampacentric Argument Number Two: “I don’t want to drive across a BRIDGE, omg, what are you asking of me? St. Petersburg is surrounded by water and I have a huge sense of entitlement that leads me to conclude that the Rays should be in Tampa so that people from Tampa don’t have to cross a bridge. If the team were in Tampa, I’d go to games. But, drive across a bridge? I mean, I’m a good fan and all, but that is pretty extreme, don’t you think? St Pete just isn’t accessible...I can’t see it from my backyard, therefore, case closed.”

Retort From the World of the Non-Self-Entitled: The current location of the Rays Stadium is RIGHT NEXT TO THE INTERSTATE off-ramps (plural: I-75, I-275, I-375). There is tons of FREE PARKING at the Trop (Tropicana Field, home of the Rays), plus plentiful parking all around in private lots, on-street, etc. There are multiple points of ingress and egress from Tropicana Field and the surrounding parking areas, and those lead to multiple choices of arteries by which to enter and leave the city heading north, south, east and west, due to the earlier-discussed grid system of the city’s roads. Even during sell-out games at the Trop, traffic moves very quickly and smoothly both to and from games and the Trop is one of the most accessible stadiums in major league baseball. Contrast that to Tampa, which on any regular evening during rush hour experiences traffic gridlock. You want to add game traffic to that mess? No, get your fair-weather fan patootie in your car and drive across the dang bridge, just as the many fans who do not live in Tampa do to attend Bucs and Lightning games in your city.

Tampacentric Argument Number Three: “Attendance is low. If the stadium were in Tampa, it would be higher.”

Retort from Reality: It is true that attendance is not up to par and, if it were, Stuart Sternberg probably wouldn’t be threatening to take the team out of St. Pete and there would be a lot more room left in cyberspace without this ever-lengthening blog entry taking up so much of it. But the reasons for the still-low attendance are several, NONE of which are the location of the stadium being in St. Pete! The main factor depressing attendance now is, obviously, the economy, as many folks just can’t afford to attend as many games as they otherwise would right now. Even though the team is now FABULOUS, if folks have to choose between paying their monthly mortgage or taking the fam out to the ball game, they are going to go with the mortgage . No matter which side of the bay the team is on, or what kind of shiny new stadium is built, until the economy gets better, the sad fact is that attendance won’t properly reflect the ever-growing fan base of the Rays. If ownership is wise, they will continue to dance with the one that brung them, and when the economy improves, so will attendance.

All that said, I hasten to add that I don’t want to argue with the Rays’ owner’s expressed desire and need for a new stadium. Much as I personally LOVE the Trop as a baseball venue, the city should be willing and eager (and I believe it is, based on what I’ve heard Mayor Foster articulate) to work with the Rays on new stadium proposals, either in the current excellent location or in another location WITHIN THE CITY, because the Trop is indeed an aging stadium in “MLB years” (sort of like dog years only different). If the Rays need a new stadium, we should be a good partner and work with them on it. However, I strongly agree with Mayor Foster’s position that the Rays have a contract to play here in St. Petersburg through 2027 and therefore no locations outside of St. Petersburg should be considered. PERIOD. Stuart Sternberg's statement that “Downtown St. Petersburg is not a viable location for baseball” was untrue, uncalled for, and completely alienating to the heart of the Rays fan base.

It was St. Petersburg that imagined, hoped, invested and dreamed the Rays into reality. We’ve loved them, supported them, and joyously given them our hearts and souls since pre-Day One. Dance with the one that brung you, Rays.

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