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Mudville: May 23, 2024 4:46 pm PDT

Finally, a Forever Home

BY MICHAEL LORTZ

I recently rewatched the cinematic classic Joe Dirt.

Joe Dirt, starring David Spade, is one of my favorite movies and I have seen it over 100 times. At its core, it is the story of a white trash drifter who cruises across America having good times, meeting cool people, and cranking some tunes. For those who have never seen it, the movie gets moving when Joe leaves Silvertown, a small but friendly place, and takes to the open road, traveling from North Dakota to Indiana to Louisiana to Los Angeles in an attempt to find his parents – and a place to call home.

Since 2006, the Tampa Bay Rays have also been looking for a home. Their current home, Tropicana Field, was built on spec in the mid-1980s, long before there was a team in Tampa Bay. There is a lot of political backstory, but basically, the powers that be in St Petersburg wanted to show that they were on par with the powers that be in Tampa.

Because Tampa was already home to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, St Pete leaders thought they would be a good host for a Major League Baseball team. Knowing Tampa was plotting to build a stadium adjacent to the football field, St Pete leaders rushed to build a baseball stadium in an old predominantly Black neighborhood, leveling old homes and businesses with the promise that baseball would arrive, and the area would blossom anew.

The strategy worked as Tampa never built their Major League stadium. Eventually the New York Yankees arrived in Tampa and moved across the street from the Bucs. But while the Yankees continued Tampa’s legacy as a spring training locale, St Pete was a Major League city. But there was one big problem. St Pete had a stadium, but no team. They did have a New Kids on the Block concert, monster truck rallies, and Tampa Bay Lightning hockey while the new NHL team waited for their own arena to be built in downtown Tampa.

After the ThunderDome – its original name – was built, various owners tried to use St Pete as leverage to get new stadiums built in their respective cities. The Giants, White Sox, and Mariners all used St Pete as bait to manipulate their local governments to pay irrational amounts of money for new stadiums keeping their teams in San Francisco, Chicago, and Seattle, respectively.

Then, in 1996, a Major League miracle happened. St Petersburg was granted an expansion franchise by Major League Baseball. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays started play in Tropicana Field in 1998 in a stadium that was already over 10 years old. Although Dick Vitale called Tropicana Field “the stadium of the future”, once play began it was clear the facility was antiquated and outdated. It also had some ridiculous ground rules such as rings above the field – some were in play and others were automatic home runs. You had to know the difference.

Aerial view of Tropicana Field, March 3, 1998 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

Since 2008, new owner Stu Sternberg has been campaigning for a new stadium. For Sternberg, it didn’t matter whether it was in St Pete, Tampa, Nashville, or Montreal, as long as he didn’t have to pay for it. In the last 15 years, there have been countless ideas and negotiations.

The first idea for a new home for the Rays was a waterfront stadium on the east coast of St Petersburg, on the current location of Al Lang Field. It was a nice design, with a sail covering the stadium to prevent rainouts. But downtown St Pete didn’t have the space for a full stadium  – nor the space for parking – so that idea was put out to sea shortly after arrival.

Next was a batch of ideas all over Tampa Bay from the Westshore area to the Carillion area to the casino area to Oldsmar to property once used for dog racing. It was always a lot to keep up with. But the Rays had one big problem, no matter what location: they never mentioned how much they were going to pay for construction. Just as they balked at paying for high priced free agents, they were consistently unclear how wide they were going to open their wallet.

Meanwhile, Tampa Bay was booming. Real estate was getting sucked up by developers eager to build high rises and houses. The available space to put a new baseball stadium was shrinking by the year. The Rays were running out of room and with a use agreement on Tropicana Field expiring in 2027, they were also running out of time.

In 2019, Rays owner Stu Sternberg had an idea. He announced the team’s intent to build a smaller stadium in the Ybor City area of Tampa and a second small stadium in Montreal. He called it the “Sister City” plan. Although he gained some support from businesses who be near the proposed Tampa location, the Sister City idea was widely criticized. I wrote several articles ripping it to shreds on Fangraphs and on my own website. Despite what the Rays insisted, everyone knew it was a dumb idea. Finally, in early 2022, Major League Baseball put the final nail in the coffin of the Sister City concept.

Artist's rendering of the new Rays stadium project. (Photo via Tampa Bay Rays)

The death of the Sister City idea left the Rays without any alternatives to St Petersburg. They had plenty of reasons not to like their current location. For one, it is nowhere near the population center of Tampa Bay. Twenty minutes west of Tropicana Field is the Gulf of Mexico, and fish can’t attend games. Getting average small market attendance has been a struggle for the Rays. They have only topped 2 million tickets sold – a milestone for small market teams – one time and that was their expansion year. Their second highest was in their World Series-bound year of 2008, when they drew 1.8 million. Recently, they have struggled to draw 1.3 million. Moving to Tampa might have provided higher attendance.

But attendance is not the only form of revenue available to Major League teams. The Rays have cable television money, revenue sharing from bigger teams, and (ready for this?) they get a percentage of redevelopment rights to the Tropicana Field property as long as they stay on the land. With 86 acres in play, the Rays could build a new stadium in the Tropicana Field parking lot and make additional money on high rises and businesses on the rest of the land.

Despite 15 years of posing and posturing, the Rays had no reason to leave the Tropicana Field location.

In early 2023, St Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch selected the Rays and their group of developers to rebuild the neighborhood and create Tropicana Field 2.0. The plan was in place if the Rays wanted it. If only they would commit to St Pete. And although St Pete is still not the size of St Louis, Cincinnati, or Seattle, it is growing at a very rapid pace. Downtown St Pete is almost unrecognizable from when the Rays began their new stadium search.

Last week, the Rays finally said “Yes” and announced they would be partners is a massive overhaul of the Tropicana Field property. The new development would rebuild the Black community in St Pete. There would be numerous new buildings, from apartments to business towers to a convention center. Most importantly for the Rays, a new 30,000 capacity dome would be the centerpiece of the construction.

At the end of Joe Dirt, Joe returns to the small, friendly confines of Silvertown and is reminded that he had a home all along. He just didn’t see it. As an old Cajun man in Louisiana tells Joe, “Home is where you make it”. For the Tampa Bay Rays, home is and will continue be a dome sweet dome in St Petersburg, Florida.

Life’s a garden, dig it.

Michael Lortz is a writer from Tampa, Florida. He is the author of the acclaimed novel Curveball at the Crossroads. His work has been featured on Fangraphs, Hardball Times, and numerous Rays websites. He likes long walks on the beach, Belgian tripels, and the color blue.

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