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Patience pays for owner of landmark Ferg's

ST. PETERSBURG — There was nowhere to sit. No room to stand. Rays fans filled every stool, every plastic chair, every battered booth.

People poured across the sidewalk, onto Central Avenue.

"If we win tonight," Mayor Rick Baker told the crowd, "we're going to close this street."

With the Rays in Detroit trying to clinch the American League East title last Friday night, fans had converged on Ferg's, the sprawling sports bar in sunflower seed-spitting distance of Tropicana Field.

If the Trop is the center of the Rays' solar system, Ferg's is the nearest planet, a cobbled-together hangout where diehards can dive into a bucket of beer before — or instead of — going to the game.

Like the Cask and Flagon outside Fenway Park, it has become the scene newscasters show during away games and a place for the ticketless to feel part of the pack. "It's our second stadium!" a fat guy declared, clanging a cowbell. Everyone drank to that.

The owner, Mark Ferguson, had taped a blue-tinsel Mohawk to his shaved head. He threaded through the crowd wiping tables and adjusting the 71 TVs. He knew most of his customers and kept clapping them on the shoulder. By the ninth inning, he had sold 4,000 beers. It was enough to make a guy hope for extra innings.

Long before Tampa Bay had a ball club, back when the Florida Suncoast Dome was new — and empty — Ferguson was a middle-school gym coach who fell in love with a grimy gas station.

It took 17 years, countless kegs, three pro sports teams and a decade of sorry baseball to build his empire on old bleachers and cheap beer.

Now the whole city is drinking in his dream.

• • •

Affable and always in motion, Ferguson has the patience of a T-ball coach and a "we're all winners" mentality that makes people want to please him. At 51, he still plays pickup basketball every Saturday to keep fit.

He grew up in St. Petersburg and was named "most athletic boy" at Bay Point Middle School. He played basketball and baseball for Lakewood High, studied phys ed at Florida State, started coaching gym at Southside Fundamental.

On his way to school one morning in 1991, he passed an abandoned Sunoco at 1320 Central Ave., across from the empty stadium. He wasn't sure why, but he had to have that gas station. Someday, he knew, a baseball team would play in the dome. There should be a sports bar beside it. So what if he had never owned one, or even worked in one?

He emptied his savings, maxed out two lines of credit and came up with $26,000 toward a down payment. Thirty friends kicked in $5,000 each. His parents provided $10,000 and hours of sweat equity.

Every afternoon after coaching all day, Ferguson gutted the gas station. He and his buddies walled in the four garage bays. They collected old bleachers from schools under renovation. Largo High's old basketball court covers the front room.

When the Tampa Bay Storm started playing arena football at the stadium, Ferguson wasn't ready to open. But he needed cash, so his girlfriend and her friends put on bikinis and waved people into the lot. They collected $5 for parking; the beer was "free."

"We'd have a keg set up inside for folks and I'd tell them: One day this is going to be a sports bar," Ferguson said. "They'd all laugh and have another beer."

The day before Thanksgiving in 1992, the doors opened on a concrete-block building that looked like a convenience mart. Eight TVs. Eight employees. Two thousand square feet, 75 seats.

"Those early years, we really relied on friends and family," said Mark's wife, Sherry, formerly known as the girlfriend in the bikini. "I'd have to call people we knew to get them to come eat just so we could make our bills."

For eight years, Ferguson kept his day job.

• • •

The Lightning was his first save.

When the pro hockey team skated into the renamed ThunderDome in 1993, Ferguson got a full liquor license and started pouring shots.

With the success of each sports team, Ferg's grew a new plywood appendage. A back patio came first, with hockey. Another season of arena football bought a game room. Ferguson festooned them all with sports clippings and photos of the youth league teams he sponsored. ("Soon they'll be old enough to drink beer," he reasons.)

When St. Petersburg joined the major leagues in March 1995, "That was the happiest day of my life," Ferguson said. He paused. "Except for my wedding day. And, oh yeah, the days my son and daughter were born."

Baseball brought a metal awning out front and a new upstairs bar. The restaurant, Sherry Ferguson pointed out, got a second story, but their own house didn't.

By the time the Bucs made the Super Bowl in 2003, Ferg's had grown to cover 12,000 square feet — six times its original size.

• • •

Ferguson "was the guy who stuck it out when everyone around him folded," said Dennis Crowley, a regular. "It's just his personality, the personality of this place that helped it survive."

"It's everything a sports bar should be," agreed Rays radio announcer Dave Wills. "After a tough loss, you come here and they cheer you up. For the last three years, I needed that."

The Rays' rise from worst to first has filled Ferg's for six months. Sales are up 33 percent. Ferguson is finally adding that second story to his house. He plans to call it "the Rays room."

• • •

Ferg's opens at 5 a.m. today for coffee and breakfast. Fans gearing up for the game can get Bloody Marys and draft specials starting at 8.

Ferguson will watch over the place until after the national anthem, then hustle to the Trop to catch the game with his kids. He'll be back behind the bar after the last out, pouring his special blue playoff punch.

Free shots if the Rays win.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8825.

Patience pays for owner of landmark Ferg's 10/01/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 6, 2008 10:01am]
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