ST. PETERSBURG — It’s been almost exactly 100 years since St. Petersburg became a springtime home for Major League Baseball teams, a place touched by legends such as Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio.
The city’s place as the birthplace of spring training will be celebrated beginning in January with a game between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Canadian national baseball team at Al Lang Stadium.
But the stadium’s ongoing future as a baseball venue is coming into question.
The stadium’s major tenant, the Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer team, wants to make Al Lang more soccer-friendly, with a new scoreboard and artificial turf. The team is prepared to put up $1 million for improvements, city leaders say.
An ever bigger decision over the stadium, though, looms long-term. A panel of experts from the Urban Land Institute recently recommended that the waterfront sports facility could be razed to make way for a multipurpose stadium. Shifting the stadium footprint would open up more of the city’s waterfront, the ULI panel said after its weeklong study of the city. Its findings may help inform the city’s new downtown waterfront master plan.
With the Tampa Bay Rays apparently set on leaving Tropicana Field and St. Petersburg, that could leave the city where Babe Ruth is rumored to have hit his longest home run without professional baseball.
“There a lot of memories and tradition connected with the Al Lang site,” said Will Michaels, author of “The Making of St. Petersburg.”
“We want to respect that history and continue it if we can.”
Since 2010, Al Lang Stadium has been run by the St. Petersburg Baseball Commission, a nonprofit group whose mission is to encourage local and international baseball and other sports at the stadium and also Walter Fuller Baseball Complex on the west side of town. Roughly $200,000 of city money is used for repairs, maintenance and utility costs of the two facilities.
Prior to that, the city paid $1 million a year to the Tampa Bay Rays, which used the stadium for spring training until transferring its preseason operations to Port Charlotte.
Under the commission’s management, Al Lang hosts more than 100 events each year, including international baseball games. The commission was instrumental in luring the Rowdies to the stadium from its home in Tampa.
Now, the team has become a fixture in town, with an average of more than 4,000 fans for each game. Fans march to the stadium from downtown bars on game day. A passionate group of supporters known as Ralph’s Mob assemble behind the north goal every game and, accompanied by a bass drum, sing their support.
But the stadium is far from ideal for soccer. Fans sit far from the field, dampening the atmosphere and home-field advantage. The score is displayed under the runs column of the baseball-centric scoreboard.
City officials have not been able to sell the stadium’s naming rights, which became available two years ago when an agreement with Duke Energy expired.
Rowdies owners were not available to be interviewed for this story but in conversations with City Council Chairman Karl Nurse they said that adding a new scoreboard and artificial turf would help grow their attendance, Nurse said.
A new video scoreboard could cost between $100,000 and $300,000, said Joe Zeoli, managing director for city development administration. Turf would be a “substantial investment,” he said.
The team’s long-term plan is modeled on that of the Montreal Impact, which slowly expanded from the North American Soccer League that the Rowdies play in to become Major League Soccer’s 19th franchise in 2012, Nurse said.
Converting the field to artificial turf would make it easier to switch the field between baseball and soccer and bring the action closer to the fans. It would also mean the stadium could be used more frequently.
“It seems to me in some fashion we want to make sure that we explore that opportunity,” Nurse said.
Just how deep the city’s appetite for soccer is would be further tested if rebuilding of Al Lang is included in its final waterfront master plan, due to be completed in 2015.
The city then may be asked to choose between a multisport facility or a soccer-only stadium that the Rowdies may prefer.
“My guess is they would want a soccer-specific stadium,” said St. Petersburg Baseball Commission Director Steve Nadel, who wants to see baseball continue in St. Petersburg. “We need to be careful about focusing on one sport; teams move — they go away.”
MLS is already poised to reintroduce soccer to Florida roughly 12 years after it shut down franchises in Tampa and Miami. In Orlando, Orange County commissioners recently approved the use of $35 million in tourist taxes for a new $84-million soccer stadium for minor league team Orlando City Soccer Club to join MLS.
Meanwhile, English soccer superstar David Beckham is the public face of an effort to bring MLS to Miami.
MLS teams with soccer-only stadiums have been successful, but there is no guarantee that public money invested in a stadium will bring a return on investment, said Adam Chase, a member of Media and Information Technologies and Sports Law practice groups at the D.C. law firm Dow Lohnes.
“The success of stadiums in generating commerce around them is all over the map unfortunately,” he said. “The risk is if you build it and they don’t come, you have this pokey edifice with a lot of investment and no economic pay off.”