You'd think that with a spectacular Cinderella season — in which they made it to the World Series and, more importantly, beat Boston for the pennant — that the Tampa Bay Rays would have it teed up for an easy shot at a new ballpark.
For a variety of reasons, mostly out of their control, the Rays may actually end up being more popular but less able to convert that popularity into a new home. The civic committee, A Baseball Community (ABC), formed to help find a new stadium site and drum up community support for it, expects to take a year or two to complete its task and has barely started assigning subcommittees. And the baseball team remains in the crosshairs of an anti-stadium civic group that not only wants to protect St. Petersburg's waterfront parks permanently but, now, let the public directly control the use of taxpayer dollars for professional sports stadiums.
Oh, and then there's the economy and credit crisis.
"We're kind of dealing with two forces at work," explained Michael Kalt, the Rays vice president who is the point person for scoring the team a new ballpark. "For the first time people understood this year what baseball could mean to a community in a way that they haven't seen before."
That will help with building a fan and season ticket base.
"The force working against us, obviously, is the economy and the credit market and the state of the financial system," Kalt acknowledged. But "we've got some momentum that the team can be something really special, driving things tangibly. ... and intangibly as well."
But to gain a new ballpark, the Rays face hurdles, some of which are quite ironic. Let's start with their success this year, which surely will result in increased ticket sales for next season at Tropicana Field. According to ESPN, the Rays this year were 26th out of the 30 teams in the MLB, with an average announced home attendance of 22,259. But to get into the top half of the league's attendance rankings would only take about 8,000 more fans per game, something that would seem achievable in season ticket sales alone given the energy generated during this year's playoff run.
If the Rays do start to draw better, at least one person with knowledge of ABC's thinking believes, the job of the committee will shift to one of justifying why the Rays need a new stadium at all.
Second, there's the matter of location and the waterfront. The Rays first plan to put the new ballpark at Al Lang Stadium's site met with fierce civic opposition, much of it owing to a sense of ownership people in St. Petersburg have for their publicly owned waterfront properties. An anti-ballpark group, Preserve our Wallets and Waterfront (POWW), formed to fight the Al Lang site and won that battle. POWW then backed off its PR blitz against the Rays.
But just before the first pitch of Game 1 of the World Series, Rays owner Stuart Sternberg perked POWW's ears back up with this statement to a St. Petersburg Times reporter:
"Part of me wishes that I'd be playing this game on the waterfront tonight. How unbelievable would downtown be? And how unbelievable would the city of St. Petersburg be ... with all the parking and all the walking and all the stores and all the restaurants and the views and the weather?"
POWW went back to DEFCON 1.
"I think that was really poorly timed," said Hal Freedman, a downtown condo dweller and POWW member. "It was at a time when everybody in the city was pulling for them and they brought back that divisive issue again, unnecessarily. It makes our referenda even more palatable to the people."
The referenda Freedman is talking about would do two things: First, they would permanently protect nearly 30 waterfront parks and city-owned properties, requiring voter approval to change the use or build anything bigger than a bathroom.
The second, however, may be the real Rays killer. POWW is gathering signatures to let voters make decisions on spending money for professional sports facilities. The ballot language would read: "BALLOT QUESTION: Shall the Charter be amended to require voter approval by referendum to use City Assets and/or City Debt, including bond issues, for the acquisition of land for, or construction, renovation, maintenance, operation, replacement, financing or refinancing of Professional Sports Facilities and related Infrastructure?"
Most St. Pete politicos I spoke with believe such a referendum would pass and that it would be extremely difficult to get sports spending approved under that new voter-driven process. POWW is gathering petition signatures (it needs about 16,000) on Election Day and hopes the two questions will be on the Nov. 2009 city election.
As for the Rays, a team official says Sternberg's statement was just an observation.
"You can read it for what it is," Kalt said. "It was a chance to showcase the area and again, we were inside the dome. When you think about what it could have meant in terms of visibility to showcase the area," Sternberg's observation is self-evident. But "it doesn't indicate that we are refocused on the waterfront."