ST. PETERSBURG — Standing on the turf of Tropicana Field, marveling at the historic turnaround of the Tampa Bay Rays, principal owner Stu Sternberg acknowledged one major regret.
"Part of me wishes that I'd be playing this game on the waterfront tonight,'' Sternberg said moments before Wednesday's Game 1. "How unbelievable would downtown be? And how unbelievable would the city of St. Petersburg be … with all the parking, and all the walking, and all the stores, and all the restaurants, and the views, and the weather?"
Plans for a $450-million waterfront ballpark stalled in June, but Sternberg and baseball officials this week revived calls for a new stadium.
This time the talk is coming from a position of strength.
"This accomplishment by the Rays this year is going to be extremely significant as we move forward to try to determine where do we go from here," said Pinellas County Commissioner Bob Stewart, who is part of a community group formed by Mayor Rick Baker to help the Rays solve their stadium issue.
"We've come a long way."
Two sides to story
The Rays' improbable run to the World Series can be spun as Exhibit A in the case for or against a new stadium, observers admit.
To stadium supporters, team officials have delivered on every promise made to Tampa Bay area fans since taking over in 2005. Now all the Rays need, executives say, is a ballpark that can keep them competitive in the long-term.
But to stadium opponents, the playoff run into October also illustrates the successes of Tropicana Field, which has proven to be a significant advantage for the home team.
The stadium, cavernous and hollow when it is two-thirds empty, is raucous and lively when packed to the rafters.
Alan Bomstein, who also is a member of the stadium community group called A Baseball Community, predicted that the Rays will finish in the top half of baseball in attendance next year.
And then the question will become, "Why do we need a new stadium now?"
The Rays say they hope Bomstein is right. But team officials are not exuding confidence.
While the Rays say they expect to increase their season ticket and regular ticket sales in 2009, they are hesitant to make projections. And the team has refused to say how many new season ticket holders have signed up during the playoff run.
Their silence is telling.
The Rays reported 3,100 season ticket accounts in 2007, and estimates range from 6,000 to 8,000 current season ticket holders.
By comparison, the Cleveland Indians and San Diego Padres say they have 15,000 season ticket holders, and the Detroit Tigers say they sold more than 20,000 season tickets this year.
The Boston Red Sox have a waiting list for season tickets, and even the Pittsburgh Pirates reported 11,000 season ticket sales in 2006 – the last year they published their sales.
Rays team president Matt Silverman said this week that the Rays rank next-to-last in season ticket sales, behind only the Florida Marlins.
Season ticket sales help the Rays plan their business for the long-term, Silverman said. Guaranteed sales mean guaranteed revenues, and they eliminate the risk in investing in a free agent or increasing the team's payroll.
"We hope this run will help catapult our business to larger revenues and help make the stadium decision easier for all," Silverman said.
From their seats along first base, three-year season ticket holders Roz and Paul Fenton of Hudson like the Trop just fine.
They aren't keen on the idea of an outdoor ballpark, aren't thrilled with it being financed by tax dollars and say the drive time to St. Petersburg could be worse.
But they also know the Rays are serious when they say they need a new stadium, and a city like San Antonio, Texas, or Charlotte, N.C., may be motivated to lure the possible World Series champions out of Florida.
The couple are probably best described as huge supporters of the Rays, and by extension tenuous supporters of a new ballpark — if it's done right.
A World Series trophy will get things going in the right direction, both say.
"If they win the World Series, it gives them huge clout in the community," said Roz Fenton. "The community is going to see a winning team and everybody rallies around a winner."
For the Rays' part, Sternberg said he is purposely not focusing on details of a new ballpark, though his mind obviously wanders to life after the Trop. The team is leaving the serious discussions to the community.
"There's no negotiations going on," Sternberg said. "It's good for my head and it's good for the organization as we head into next year.
"In the long run, it's not good for the organization, but we've got some very capable people that will study this thing and find what works."