Will St. Petersburg regret loss of spring training for its history and economic stimulus?
Is downtown St. Petersburg setting itself up for the Big Whiff when it comes to baseball? Anyone who was is a Grapefruit League fan knows what a joy it used to be to watch spring training games at Al Lang Field at Progress Energy Park in downtown St. Pete. At least until the Tampa Bay Devil Rays defected to build a snazzy new park in Charlotte County, leaving Al Lang Field without a team and downtown St. Petersburg without spring training fans and tourists. (Photo: The last spring training game at Al Lang, March 28, 2008, by James Borchuck of the St. Petersburg Times.)
Don't forget that area business poobahs are helping the Rays, who now play at Tropicana Field, look for a potentially superior location for a new stadium for their regular season games. That site, if it materializes, probably won't be in downtown St. Pete and may not be in St. Pete at all.
So consider this scenario. The Rays relocate at some point to Tampa or at least mid-Pinellas, leaving downtown St. Pete with an empty Trop and a still empty Al Lang Field. The city will regret losing spring training all the more.
Other Florida towns remain ravenous for a spring training team. Naples is eagerly courting the Chicago Cubs, for example. A group was formed four months ago with the purpose of making Collier County the spring training home for the Chicago Cubs, the Naples Daily News reports in this story. That group already has met with the Cubs – both at their headquarters in Wrigley Field, and earlier this month in Naples for a two-day visit by new owner Tom Ricketts and CEO Crane Kenney. During that visit, the Cubs -- a team that currently does its spring training in Arizona -- toured Collier County looking at potential stadium sites.
Reports the Naples newspaper: “The Chicago Cubs are exploring Naples, Florida, as a potential spring training venue and have been working with Chicago-based Esmark and Naples-based Fifth Avenue Advisors in that regard,” Kenney confirmed in a statement. “Our site visits and discussions confirm that Collier County has a number of suitable locations for a world-class spring training facility.”
Naples is not alone. Sarasota saw its spring training home of the Cincinnati Reds get snatched away by an Arizona town. Sarasota agonized with several teams, trying to negotiate a new team for vacant Ed Smith Stadium (show in better days in photo by AP), its spring training site. Now it's got the Baltimore Orioles coming to town (after promised renovations and state assistance) for the 2011 season. Meanwhile, after Fort Myers watched as the Boston Red Sox left its downtown City of Palms Park for south Lee County, recruiters are looking for a new hometown team. Maybe the Milwaukee Brewers, another Arizona spring training team that plays near Phoenix.
The point? Wouldn't it be ironic that downtown St. Pete so easily gave up its spring training team if the Tampa Bay Rays Major League Baseball franchise also relocated to supposedly greener pastures? It would be an astonishing turn of events and loss of baseball culture (and economic stimulus) to the city.
-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist