Back in the 1910s, St. Petersburg mayor Al Lang tried to lure big league clubs to St. Petersburg for spring training. The city expanded a grandstand for the ballpark at Coffee Pot Bayou and proceeded to try and woo a team to spend their February and March in a small town that served no liquor. Teams turned them down initially, but soon St. Pete became a regular Grapefruit League destination. The Cubs were the first to show up. The Yankees trained there during Babe Ruth’s heyday. The Yankees trained there for so long that the ballpark became known as Huggins-Stengel Field. In the end Al Lang’s strategy worked.
When it came to luring a big league franchise to Western Florida, the city of St. Petersburg tried Al Lang’s plan all over again. Passed over for expansion in the early and late 1960s as well as in 1977, they needed to build a ballpark before they could get a team. As early as 1983 there was talk of building a multi-purpose stadium for the Buccaneers to share with a potential baseball team. By the mid 1980s, the plan was to build a baseball-only park based upon Royals (now Kauffman) Stadium, with a tent covering the field. By the late 1980s, a new design was put into place, which at the time was state of the art: A permanent non-retractable dome that was slanted. Somehow this would keep the place cooler. Don’t ask me how.
By the late 1980s not only was the $85 million 43,000 seat dome, then named The Sun Coast Dome, under construction, but they had a potential tenant. The White Sox were playing in a decaying Comiskey Park to dwindling crowds and little interest, especially compared with the cross-town rival Cubs. White Sox general partners Eddie Einhorn and Jerry Reinsdorf found themselves stuck dealing with the machine politics of Chicago to get a new ballpark in the suburbs—Florida came knocking. They saw Florida, then untapped as a big league market, as a potential gold mine.
The White Sox would be rechristened the Florida White Sox. Instead of having to share Chicago, they would have their own state. Four million permanent residents as well as many millions more tourists came to the area each year. It seemed like a much easier sell to potential fans than the South Side of Chicago. Plus the state had low property taxes, and it looked as if they would be able to secure loans to relieve the White Sox’s massive debt. In 1988 it seemed like a done deal that the White Sox would do what the Dodgers, Giants, Braves, Browns and A’s had done more than a generation before and let their original home become a one team town.
Then the Illinois State Legislature in 1989 voted to help pay for a new ballpark across the street from Comiskey. Appropriately enough in the year that the White Sox were featured so prominently in Field of Dreams that they voted to build it so they wouldn’t leave. The New Comiskey Park opened in 1991. Now called U. S. Cellular Field, the cold and emotionless park was the last of the Pre-Camden Yards baseball stadiums. The White Sox won the World Series in 2005 but remain in the shadow of the Cubs.
The Sun Coast Dome was built and simply sat there unused. Instead, it found its greatest use in its two decades of existence—as a bargaining tool. By the late 1980s and early 1990s there were four potential cities available for Major League team relocation. Mile High Stadium in Denver, Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami and RFK Stadium in Washington could all be temporary homes for a baseball team. Only Tampa Bay had a permanent home waiting for a tenant. They seemed like a lock for the baseball expansion to take place after the 1992 season. Instead Denver and Miami made more aggressive pitches, and the Rockies and Marlins were born. Teams like the Twins and Rangers threatened to move to Florida, only to get new leases or stadiums while the Dome in St. Petersburg hosted Monster Truck rallies and Tampa Bay Lightning hockey games to justify its existence.
The Giants’ flirtation with Tampa Bay was even more intense than that by the White Sox. When Bob Lurie could not get the city to pay for a new downtown ballpark. When relocation options to Santa Clara and San Jose proved to be fruitless, he sold the club to Vince Naimoli who had the intention of moving the team to the Sun Coast Dome. There were Tampa Bay Giants T-Shirts printed (the “Florida” moniker was co-opted by the new Marlins team) and a rally held in St. Petersburg. Sure Miami would get a new expansion team, but Tampa Bay would have the established franchise with big league stars like Will Clark and Matt Williams.
But the National League did not approve the sale and soon Peter Magowan swooped in with his Safeway money to keep the team in the Bay Area. He also brought in Barry Bonds to put some butts in the seats and eight years after threatening to move, the Giants moved into Pacific Bell Park, arguably the best of the new retro ballparks. With the 2010 World Series between the Giants and the Rangers, both home parks were built in the wake of a threat to move to Tampa Bay.
It can be argued that the worst thing to happen to Tampa Bay baseball was actually putting a team in the dome. The idea of Tampa Bay being a baseball success story waiting to happen was so much more glamorous than the reality. It’s like the promise of a third Godfather film or the prequels to Star Wars or a fourth Indiana Jones film were all so much more exciting than the disappointing end product. Like the films mentioned above, it was clear right from the beginning that Tampa Bay major league baseball was a big mistake.
The team itself of course was a mess, but most expansion teams are. It was appropriate that they were named Devil Rays for a bottom feeder, which is where they stayed in the standings. The team’s strategy of getting as many sluggers as possible was appropriate for the steroid era but not very effective in chasing down the Yankees or Red Sox. Once great hitters like Wade Boggs, Fred McGriff, Greg Vaughn and Jose Canseco appropriately used Tampa Bay as a retirement home, collecting one last big payday while wearing one of the worst uniforms in baseball history. The first 10 seasons in Tampa Bay were so nondescript that the only highlight was the mop-up relief appearance by Jim Morris that inspired the movie The Rookie.
But worse than the team was the venue that so many teams threatened to call home. When it was rechristened Tropicana Field in 1998, it was out of date before the first pitch was thrown. The idea of a permanent dome was made unfashionable with the opening of SkyDome in Toronto. And the notion of a ballpark located far away from the heart of the city was obsolete with the success of Camden Yards, as well as Coors Field and Jacobs Field. Not only did the Devil Rays play far away from downtown Tampa, but the stadium was built over hazardous chemicals left over from an old coal plant
And of course the interior was gray and drab and simply colorless. But nothing made the ballpark more absurd than the catwalks and rings hanging from the dome and the surreal ground rules they caused. If a ball hits the A ring then the ball is dead. If it hits the D ring then it is a home run, or something. The rules can be read here, but that is beside the point. Crazy rules to account for obstructions are fine when you are playing whiffle ball in the front yard but not in a Major League Ballpark. They might as well have “Ghost Runners” on base and remember who was on base after the players come back from lunch.
But there seems to be something else deeply wrong with baseball in St. Petersburg. Stuart Sternberg took over the team and installed Andrew Friedman as GM and Joe Maddon as manager before the 2006 season. By 2008 they had better uniforms, a cooler name and a pennant winner, leap-frogging the Yankees in the standings and beating the Red Sox in the ALCS. They had the best kind of team you could hope for—young, home grown, energetic with likable personalities and a flair for the dramatic. And they played in front of a nearly empty stadium. They had the third lowest attendance in the American League when they won the 2008 pennant. And when the Rays had the best regular-season record in the American League for 2010, they had to give away free tickets to fill the stadium for the last home stand. With little revenue coming in, the Rays have started dismantling the team meaning their run for another American League pennant might be over.
If there is ever talk about moving a team, the Rays come up as a potential candidate. And talk of a new stadium has been floating around almost since their first season. All is not lost in Tampa Bay. The team does have solid local television ratings and their rise to pennant contention coincided with the worst economic climate since the Great Depression. But Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay has yet to be the gold mine that was envisioned by many teams over the years. No doubt looking at the Rays fortunes, the Giants, Twins, Rangers and White Sox are all thankful they stayed put. As for the Rays, where exactly can they go? There is no major league ready stadium sitting somewhere waiting to be filled by a team. Al Lang would find it a lot harder simply building a new park now than it was when he built a grandstand at Coffee Pot Bayou nearly 100 years ago.
References & Resources
MLB.com, NewYorkTimes.com, baseball-reference.com, CNNSI.cpm