ST. PETERSBURG — Pete the Manatee was supposed to symbolize everything that is wrong with a hulking baseball stadium on a pristine waterfront.
That was before the group of environmentalists that created him decided to ditch him. Like everyone else around Tampa Bay, they simply couldn't agree on whether the Tampa Bay Rays' proposed stadium was a good or bad idea.
But surfers John and Julie Pappas refuse to give up on Pete.
The manatee, the couple say, must fulfill his destiny.
• • •
Christmas was weeks away.
Julie Pappas was sitting around with her surfer friends lamenting the proposed stadium.
The plan calls for dumping fill dirt over six-tenths of an acre of Tampa Bay to create about 26,000 square feet of new land, the rough equivalent of three house lots.
What if we did something? someone asked.
I can do something, Pappas thought.
"Our waterfront, the way it is now, is great," she said. "A big monster stadium that is going to cost me money is not a good idea."
What would be a really cute and recognizable mascot? she wondered.
A dolphin? No, dolphins have been done to death.
A fish? No, fish are not cute.
A stingray? Obviously not, because of the Rays.
A manatee? It's cute. It's big. It comes with its own slogan — "save the manatees."
"I just knew," said Pappas, "we had to build a manatee."
• • •
His skin is made of tape, his skeleton of PVC pipe and ceiling wire, his eyes of recycled boat upholstery.
Pappas and her husband, John, began building Pete in December with the help of Julie's artsy brother, Jon Shields.
They were going to float him out on biodegradable foam in Tampa Bay near the proposed stadium site at Al Lang Field.
"We wanted to do it guerrilla style," said Shields, 36. "We were going to drop it out in the middle of the night."
The Pappases, members of a local chapter of the Surfriders Foundation, a grass roots nonprofit environmental group, decided to run it by the other surfers. They loved it.
Word spread, and the Pappases received calls from environmental groups such as Tampa Bay Watch, the Sierra Club and Protect Our Wallets and Waterfront, a vocal opponent of the stadium. The activists even came up with a nickname: Pete, for St. Petersburg.
A protest was set for Feb. 20, the day before the first City Council hearing on the stadium. The surfers were going to paddle out into the bay and create a semicircle that would represent the dredged and filled land. Pete, in all his gray glory, would float in a kayak at the center of the spectacle. Thousands of people were expected.
Then two days before the scheduled protest, the Surfriders changed their minds. Some of the surfers had even started talking about how much they were looking forward to attending a game at the proposed outdoor stadium.
The protest was definitely off.
• • •
The Pappases still believe in Pete.
They briefly flirted with the idea of parading Pete out at a Rays game, but they doubted they could get him past security.
An art gallery asked to display him, but the Pappases declined, determined to bring Pete to water.
So they are back to Plan A: All of St. Petersburg will wake up one day soon and find Pete floating in Tampa Bay with a sign that reads, "Keep your balls out of our bay."
"He has to fulfill his vision," said Julie Pappas. "He can't sit in my back yard for the rest of my life."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or [email protected]