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International baseball coming to St. Petersburg, mayor says

ST. PETERSBURG — Playoff baseball is already here. Now spring training games are coming back — in a manner of speaking.

Mayor Bill Foster announced Monday that national teams from Australia, Canada and the Netherlands will compete at Al Lang Field starting in 2011. Included on their schedule will be spring exhibition games against the Tampa Bay Rays and other Major League Baseball teams.

The St. Petersburg International Baseball program is the mayor's opening bid at making the city an all-year baseball destination.

"This just adds a baseball flavor year-round," the mayor said.

Those three teams and possibly a fourth — the mayor said he is in negotiations with a team from South Korea — would train in St. Petersburg and play each other in a spring league.

They would use Al Lang Field at Progress Energy Park to play exhibition games and then train at the Walter Fuller Baseball Complex and possibly at Huggins-Stengel Field as well.

Foster discussed the initiative on a cool Monday afternoon as he raised a Rays' flag over City Hall, celebrating the team's second American League East division title and playoff berth in three years.

"We have this kind of weather year-round," he said. "It just makes sense to play baseball here year-round."

The Tampa Bay Rays played spring games at Al Lang and trained at the baseball complex for a decade until the team moved its spring training operations to Charlotte County in 2009. But the mayor stressed that international baseball is in no way meant to compete with the bay area's Major League team.

"I'm doing this with the full cooperation and commitment from the Tampa Bay Rays," Foster said. "This is not competing with their product. This is to enhance their product." The Rays confirmed the arrangement but did not comment further.

Canada and the Netherlands have committed to play 15 to 20 games at Al Lang starting on Feb. 26, 2011, the city said.

Those teams will also play spring training exhibitions against the Tampa Bay Rays and other Major League Baseball teams, the mayor said.

Australia has committed to play in summer and spring leagues in 2012 in St. Petersburg. The mayor's ultimate goal is to expand international baseball operations to include the fall and summer, bringing year-round baseball to St. Petersburg.

Details about what those fall and summer leagues, or what teams might participate, were not released. But Monday's announcement shows the city is already ahead of the game, Foster said, compared with other locales.

"This is our first crack at this," the mayor said. "I can tell you that Arizona has been trying to bring in international baseball for quite some time, but without success."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

International baseball coming to St. Petersburg, mayor says 10/04/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 5, 2010 8:33am]
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