Twenty-five years ago today was a big day for baseball in Illinois—and a dark day for baseball in Florida.
Dec. 5, 1986, was zero hour in the fight for a new ballpark for the Chicago White Sox. At that point, they were playing in Comiskey Park, the oldest park in baseball, but one that was not in the best of shape.
Team owners Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn wanted a new stadium, and this being modern America, that meant public financing. To help their case and to make things interesting, the Sox also began looking for options outside Chicago. They found a taker in Florida.
The Tampa Bay-St. Petersburg area really wanted a team, especially St. Pete. A ballclub would make it a two-sport area, to go along with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. St. Petersburg especially wanted a team to avoid being the junior partner in the area, and the city did more than talk. In 1986, they started constructing a stadium.
This was serious. The Sox might leave Chicago for the Promised Land in Florida. Chicago had its plan: The city would build a new park at same intersection as the old one: 35th and Shields on the South Side. But they couldn’t dither for long. Deadlines were set. If public financing for the stadium didn’t come through, the Sox were going to Florida.
The big vote came in the state capital on Dec. 5. If the legislature didn’t approve of the money by midnight, Chicago would be a one-team baseball town for the first time since 1900. The legislature was in session, voting on the motion in literally the 11th hour. Governor Jim Thompson had votes, but not quite enough. He scrounged for more as midnight neared. He was running out of time, and it looked bleak.
Then everyone remembered what state this was: Illinois. If things look bleak by normal, ethical means, then get creative. Midnight was coming, and Thompson couldn’t get the votes in time, so he got creative: He unplugged the clock. Officially, time stood still. Thompson kept scrounging, got the votes, and the vote went forward. It was actually a little after midnight, but that’s not what the clock in Springfield said, and that’s all that mattered.
Chicago kept the White Sox, and St. Petersburg could continue construction on what was now a pre-abandoned building.
In hindsight, nothing really worked out too well for anyone. Illinois taxpayers? They got stuck with the bill. For that matter, so did the St. Petersburg taxpayers, as the money fairies didn’t pay for that stadium.
Eventually, St. Petersburg got to use that stadium when the Devil Rays came to town. So in that sense, they got something out of it. But the irony really began for them then. The stadium turned out to be the worst in baseball. Its location is terrible, and studies have shown that fewer people live within easy travel of it than any other big league ballpark.
Think about it: St. Petersburg built their stadium so it wouldn’t be the junior partner in town, but the city missed the bigger picture. Merely having the baseball team doesn’t make you the more important city. Having more people, a better business base, overall strength of the city—that’s what determined if it or Tampa would be top local dog. St. Petersburg focused on the sizzle, not the steak. For the stadium to be worth a damn, it needed to be on the other side of the bay.
Upshot: Even though Tampa is a well-run franchise nowadays and has made the postseason multiple times, it’s stuck among the also-rans in attendance and overall finances. If the Sox had gone there, they would have the same problems the current Devil Rays had, just not necessarily with as strong a management team.
And about those White Sox—what did they get? Yeah, they got their stadium, and yes, it was on the same location as before, but that proved to be a blessing and a curse. The neighborhood around it wasn’t nearly as welcoming as the corresponding Wrigleyville area on the North Side. People were less likely to come.
Almost every time a new park is built, it’s strategically located either in a suburban area or by a gentrified downtown area. New Comiskey was located in neither spot. There’s an irony at work. Lead owner Jerry Reinsdorf made his fortune in real estate, yet both parks he was associated with violate the First Commandment of real estate: Location.
More than that, New Comiskey Park, as it was called until naming rights changed it to U.S. Cellular Field, also proved to be the last ballpark to open before Baltimore’s Camden Yards. The new Sox Park spent a decade or so getting bleak reviews before a retrofitting to Camden-ize it occurred.
Reinsdorf wanted his stadium and got two built. He wanted public money to build it, and two taxpayer bodies agreed to foot the bills, but ultimately both stadiums hurt their teams in the long run. Both stadiums were shortsighted, looking only at immediate goals of simply getting it constructed and ignoring the more important longer term trend of how the park can help the team out down the road.
At any rate, the big moment came exactly a quarter-century ago, on Dec. 5, 1986.
Aside from that, several other events celebrate either their anniversary or “day-versary” (which is an event occurring X-thousand days ago) today. Here they are, with the better ones in bold if you just feel like skimming the list.
2,000 days since Matt Clement plays in his final game.
3,000 days since Boston beats the Yankees 3-1, except they don’t. Up 3-1 in the ninth, Boston records the 27th and final out, only to learn a fan was on the field when the ball was caught, which nullifies the play. Given new life, the Yankees rattle off four straight singles for three runs and the win.
4,000 days since the Mariners sign free agent Bret Boone. This works out well for them.
6,000 days since authorities arrest a woman armed with a .22 caliber pistol at the SkyDome Hotel in Toronto. She had threatened to kill Roberto Alomar because she couldn’t “establish a relationship” with him. Creepy.
8,000 days since Spud Chandler dies.
9,000 days since Juan Nieves tosses the first no-hitter in Brewer history. He beats the Orioles 7-0 with seven Ks and five walks.
10,000 days since Orel Hershiser tosses his third consecutive shutout, setting a personal best Game Score of 92 in the process. In this game, he allows two hits, fans nine and walks none. Over the three starts in all, he’s allowed 11 hits, three walks, while fanning 29 in 27 innings.
1864 Patsy Tebeau, manager of the 1890s Cleveland Spiders, is born.
1872 Pink Hawley, good pitcher with terrible run support, is born.
1888 Columbus joins the American Association, replacing Cleveland, which moved to the NL in the offseason.
1914 Chief Bender jumps from the A’s to the Federal League’s Baltimore franchise.
1921 Commissioner Landis suspends Babe Ruth and his Yankee teammates Bob Meusel and Bill Piercy for six weeks for an unauthorized barnstorming tour they had over the offseason. It’s the first of five suspensions Ruth will receive for the 1922 season.
1940 Pittsburgh release longtime star outfielder Paul Waner.
1940 Washington signs free agent pitcher Danny MacFayden.
1946 The White Sox sign free agent pitcher Red Ruffing.
1949 The Yankees draft Dale Long from Detroit in a minor league draft.
1950 Bill Dahlen, 19th century shortstop who is one of the best players not in the Hall of Fame, dies.
1951 Shoeless Joe Jackson dies.
1955 Carl Stotz, founder of Little League, announces plans to organize a rival Little League. He’d had a falling out with others in charge of the original Little League.
1957 The Reds trade prospect centerfielder Curt Flood to the Cardinals in a five-player deal.
1966 Bill DeWitt sells the Reds to an investor group for $7,000,000.
1967 Stan Musial resigns as Cardinals GM. He served only one year in that position, in which St. Louis won the World Series.
1969 Chub Feeney succeeds Warren Gils as NL president.
1972 Cliff Floyd is born.
1973 Ron Santo becomes the first player to invoke the 10/5 rule clause in baseball’s collective bargaining agreement. As a player who has been in the big leagues 10 years, including the last five with the same team, Santo has the right to veto any trade, and he does here. Since he’s the first to invoke the clause, the press dubs it “the Santo Clause.” Ho-ho-ho.
1974 The Texas Rangers make a pair of trades. They get pitcher Clyde Wright from the Brewers and outfielder Willie Davis from Montreal.
1977 The Angels trade Richard Dotson, Thad Bosley, and Bobby Bonds to the White Sox for Brian Downing, Dave Frost, and Chris Knapp. Downing will go on to have a surprisingly long and productive offensive career with the Angels while Dotson will enjoy a 20-win season for the 1983 division winning White Sox.
1977 In the Rule 5 draft, Milwaukee gets Ned Yost from the Mets. Decades later, Yost becomes Milwaukee manager.
1979 California signs the shortest player in baseball, five-foot three-inch free agent shortstop Freddie Patek.
1979 Toronto trades Chris Chambliss to the Braves. Wait. Toronto trades Chabmliss? Yeah, a month earlier, the Yankees traded him to Toronto, so he spent time with the Canadian club, even though he never played for them.
1983 In the Rule 5 draft, the Blue Jays nab Kelly Gruber from the Indians.
1989 The Tigers sign free agent Tony Phillips.
1990 The Mets sign free agent Vince Coleman, ending the speedster’s time with St. Louis.
1990 Toronto signs free agent Pat Tabler, who is a great hitter when the bases are loaded.
1994 In the midst of the ongoing baseball strike, major league baseball announces that lead negotiator for the owners, Richard Ravitch, will step down when his contract ends at the conclusion of 1994.
1995 Former big league ball player Bill Bruton dies.
1995 California signs free agent Tim Wallach, who is playing out his string in the majors.
1995 Minnesota signs free agent Paul Molitor.
1996 The executive council for the Players’ Association unanimously approves of the new collective bargaining agreement.
1996 Minnesota signs free agent catcher Terry Steinbach.
1999 MLB and ESPN announce a new six-year deal worth $800 million.
2001 Mayor Rudolph Guliani of New York City announces he wants to complete new stadium deals for both of the city’s ballclubs before he leaves office.
2002 The New York Mets sign free agent pitcher Tom Glavine.
2005 Florida trades Paul Lo Duca to the Mets for a pair of minor leaguers.
2006 Colorado signs free agent LaTroy Hawkins.
2008 Greg Maddux announces his retirement as a player.
2010 The Nationals sign free agent Jayson Werth to a big contract.