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Saturday, Oct 25, 2014

Don't get bullied into new ballpark

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Opening day is a few days away. On Monday, the Tampa Bay Rays will open their 17th season of Major League Baseball. For some reason, and I can't explain why, it just doesn't seem that the team has been here that long.

Every time I go to Tropicana Field I always say the same thing to myself: The White Sox almost ended up here.

Yes, in the late 1980s, the team I grew up rooting for on the South Side of Chicago came very close to moving to St. Petersburg. The city had built what was called the Suncoast Dome in 1986 hoping to lure a big-league franchise. White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf used the threat of moving his team here to get a new publicly financed ballpark across the street from the old Comiskey Park.

What is now U.S. Cellular Field opened in 1991. It's very bland compared with some of the newer retroparks that have opened. In fact, it looks a lot like the Trop minus the dome.

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Other teams used the Trop as leverage for new ballparks until an ownership group led by Vince Naimoli was awarded an expansion franchise in 1995, and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays began play in 1998. Ironically, in this age of throwaway stadiums and the ever-increasing need for more revenue streams, the ballpark that was a tool for so many baseball teams is now considered inadequate by the current owner of the Rays.

After the large opening-day crowd, attendance will drop down near the bottom of the league. Local and national sports talk shows will whine about how the ballpark and/or its location are the reasons. Rays owner Stu Sternberg again will talk about the need to explore stadium options in Pinellas and Hillsborough, even though the team is contractually obligated to the Trop until 2027.

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One person in Hillsborough County who isn't interested in the Rays looking across the bay is Tampa City Council Chairman Charlie Miranda, who has made it clear he opposes any deal that would require taxpayer support.

Back in July, he put his money where his mouth is by sending a $100 check to the re-election campaign of former St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, who for most of his term expressed the belief that the team should honor its contract with the city.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has said a new ballpark would be a nice addition to the city's downtown, but he wouldn't support an increase in property or sales taxes to help pay for it. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman made a new Rays ballpark an issue during the campaign, but little was discussed last month when he met with Sternberg.

So it looks like the Rays will be playing in the Trop for at least the next few years.

While talks continue on either side of the bay about the Rays' future, all elected officials in the Tampa Bay area need to look south to the ballpark fiasco that has left the taxpayers in Miami-Dade County stuck with perhaps the biggest white elephant in Florida.

After Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria claimed he needed to get out of the football stadium he shared with the Miami Dolphins but couldn't afford to build a new facility, the Miami-Dade County Commission agreed to finance the lion's share of a new $636 million ballpark that will end up costing taxpayers more than $1 billion when the bonds are paid off. Attendance at Marlins games is still among the lowest in the league, and Loria eventually unloaded the team's high-priced players, lowering the payroll by $146 million.

So if fans in Miami have to sit through bad baseball for years to come, too bad. Loria has his new ballpark and is guaranteed to make a nice profit for seasons to come because the Marlins and other “small market” teams receive millions in revenue sharing every year from the larger market clubs. The new stadium will nearly double the value of his franchise, but taxpayers have received the fiscal equivalent of a beanball.

Tropicana Field isn't the most beautiful ballpark in baseball, but in these cash-strapped times it will have to do for now. So play ball.

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