The Cuesta-Rey Cigar Bar, a presence in center field at Tropicana Field for two decades, won’t be back this season, but Eric Newman wants his cigar company to have a similar lounge at a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium in Ybor City.
"That would be a natural for us, a natural for them because they’re going to build a stadium in Ybor City, which was built on the cigar industry," said Newman, the president of the J.C. Newman Cigar Co, based about a mile from the proposed ballpark site. "This is really the heart of the industry, the heart of cigar country."
Moreover, he said, the history of baseball in Tampa has roots in the cigar industry. Many Ybor City cigar factory workers — including the parents of Hall of Famer Al Lopez — raised sons who distinguished themselves on neighborhood baseball diamonds from Cuscaden Park to West Tampa. And the city had a minor league team called the Tampa Smokers.
Newman Cigars had the Cuesta-Rey Cigar Bar at the Trop since the Rays’ first season in 1998, but learned last month the Rays have different plans for the space. A team spokeswoman declined this week to say what those plans are, but Newman said it’s his understanding the team plans to put in games for family entertainment.
Losing the space at the Trop came as a surprise, Newman said, "but I put the disappointment behind me, and I’m looking forward to having a presence in the new stadium."
Newman said he’s talked with Rays president Matt Silverman about having a cigar bar in any new Ybor City stadium. He also has taken steps to get involved with the nonprofit group Tampa Bay Rays 2020.
Founded by Tampa attorney Ron Christaldi and Sykes Enterprises CEO Chuck Sykes, the group has said it plans to announce in the coming weeks the creation of a core group of businesses known as the Rays 100 to work on increasing season ticket sales, suite bookings and sponsorships at a Tampa ballpark.
"A lot of details need to be worked out between now and the first pitch on opening day," Christaldi said. "The focus of the Tampa Bay Rays 2020 effort is to galvanize the support of the business community, to show the Tampa Bay Rays that we can fill up the stadium with fans here in Tampa Bay and to make the Rays’ long-term home in Tampa Bay for generations."
Newman, a supporter of a Rays move to Tampa, said people should remember what it was like in the early 1990s, before the region got the team.
"We need to renew that energy," he said. "It’s a lot easier to keep a franchise than it is to go out and get one."
With a history that goes back to 1895, the J.C. Newman Cigar Co. says it’s the oldest family-owned maker of premium cigars in the U.S., with brands that include the Cuesta-Rey, El Baton and Diamond Crown lines of cigars. Newman, 69, and his brother Bobby Newman are the third generation of their family to run the company, with a fourth generation on deck.
The company’s original deal at the Trop, struck when Vince Naimoli owned the Rays, was for the cigar bar space, eight season tickets, signs inside and outside the building, mentions on Rays’ TV and radio broadcasts and recognition on the jumbo video screen for giving away a box of cigars each game to a fan.
Over the years, the outline of that business relationship got smaller, Newman said, especially after a nonprofit organization, Tobacco-Free Florida, became a Rays sponsor. After that, Newman Cigars lost its signs and mentions during game broadcasts.
In recent years, Newman said his company spent about $60,000 per season for the sponsorship — about $30,000 for eight season tickets behind the first-base dugout and another $30,000 to run the cigar bar. By comparison, in the early years the company’s commitment to the team was closer to the high five figures per season.
Newman wants to be involved with the team, but said it’s difficult to say what the company’s commitment could look like at a new stadium.
"I have no idea what the deal is going to be," he said. "That’s a long way off. I’ll be happy to buy season tickets."
In a recent Tampa Bay Times survey of more than three dozen local companies, a few said they expected to increase their commitments to the team if it moved to Tampa.
Most said little more than that they supported the idea of keeping the Rays in the region — a non-committal response that’s not that surprising in light of the fact that sponsorships are negotiated business deals, so no one wants to go in having announced everything he or she is ready to give.
Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times.