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Tuesday, Sep 23, 2014
Joe Brown Columns
COLUMN

Quick fix for baseball? Pick up pace

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Like many Americans, I was very into the Little League World Series that ended last Sunday. It featured a girl, Mo’ne Davis, who struck out a bunch of boys and made the cover of Sports Illustrated. There was also the team from the South Side of Chicago that won the American championship and provided something positive and uplifting to a city that desperately needed it.

Right in the middle of all this, Major League Baseball announced its new commissioner to replace Bud Selig, who had been on the job since 1992. Rob Manfred, Selig’s right-hand man for many years, showed up at the LLWS but drew less attention than the preteens on the field.

While baseball is doing well financially, the new commissioner has a lot of work to do. Although the game is still called the national pastime, it’s a distant third in popularity behind the National Football League and college football. The World Series, once the nation’s premier sporting event, has seen declining TV ratings for years, and the sport is losing many young fans, especially in our inner cities, to football and basketball.

According to some national writers, however, the three main issues confronting Manfred when he takes over are labor peace, performance-enhancing drugs and unresolved stadium issues in Oakland and Tampa Bay. Really?

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From 1994 to 2012, 21 of Major League Baseball’s 30 teams got new ballparks. Three others got new parks just before Bud Selig took over. The two teams in the oldest facilities, the Red Sox and Cubs, have refurbished their old parks or are planning more updates. The Atlanta Braves have broken ground to build a new stadium to replace Turner Field — which opened in 1997.

That leaves only two teams, the Rays and A’s, to fulfill the MLB’s edifice complex. Despite the fact that the Rays have succeeded in spite of having “stadium issues,” many national writers feel they are doomed unless they build a new ballpark, preferably in Tampa.

According to Sports Illustrated writer Cliff Corcoran: “Despite winning more games than any team other the Yankees from 2008 to 2013, the Rays are routinely near or at the bottom of the league in attendance. That has less to do with the passion of their fan base than it does the unfortunate location of Tropicana Field. The park, which was built before the team was created (as Jonah Keri wrote in “The Extra 2%,” it was obsolete the day it opened), is the only permanent dome remaining in the majors and is, along with Toronto’s Rogers Centre, one of just two remaining baseball parks with artificial turf.

“The biggest problem with Tropicana Field, however, is its accessibility, or lack thereof. The ballpark is located near the tip of the Pinellas peninsula, separated from the region’s major population centers by Tampa Bay itself, thus forcing the vast majority of the team’s fan base to squeeze across the three-mile-long W. Howard Frankland Bridge to attend games, resulting in monstrous traffic congestion. It’s no wonder most Rays fans prefer to stay home. That the Rays have managed to succeed despite the constant need to trade away their best veteran pitchers does not minimize their need for a new ballpark.”

Paul White of USA Today thinks along the same lines.

“The Tampa Bay situation only figures to become more pronounced,” wrote White. “Little has changed there, with the Rays and MLB aware that the Tampa side of the bay is the source of the most potential revenue while the St. Petersburg side clings to its ironclad stadium lease through 2027.

“The Rays have been remarkably successful on the field despite attendance problems that just won’t go away. Continuing that combination for another decade or more might not be realistic.”

So for the Rays to be successful in the future they have to leave St. Petersburg? It’s amazing sometimes to get the perspective of an outsider.

If the Rays get a new ballpark before 2027, location will be the key no matter on which side of the bay it’s built. And as trends for new stadiums have shown, attendance doesn’t improve dramatically after the new-car-smell effect wears off, usually in the second year.

The first thing the new commish should tackle is increasing the pace of games. The average nine-inning game now takes 3:08, up from 2:48 in 2004 and 2:25 in 1963. Young people today, many of whom are used to speed and have short attention spans, aren’t going to sit through many three-hour contests. And it wouldn’t hurt to start World Series games a little earlier so kids in the Eastern time zone can watch on a school night.

As for the Rays ballpark issue, we’ll handle that locally — unless the MLB wants to provide the funds for a new one and compensate the city of St. Petersburg for the “ironclad stadium lease” it has with the team.

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