ST. PETERSBURG — In the middle of their best-ever season, the Tampa Bay Rays suffered possibly the franchise's most agonizing defeat.
Abandoning plans for a $450-million waterfront ballpark ends seven months of often acrimonious public discussions over the future of St. Petersburg's downtown.
Team president Matt Silverman, a 32-year-old Harvard-educated executive who usually shies from the spotlight, offered some thoughts:
Did it pain you that you needed to change paths? This has been a pretty consuming process for you.
The waterfront ballpark was a vision of ours and one that many within the community believed in, so certainly there's a sense of loss, because that plan is on the shelf. But we're very encouraged by the show of support and the unified voice with which the political and the business community spoke on Wednesday.
Though you faced an uphill battle on the November referendum, it also was apparent that you made progress. There are more 'Build the ballpark' signs out there today. The chamber of commerce was largely supportive. Was that support coming together too slowly?
I think Wednesday's announcement encapsulates that growing support for the Rays organization and the need for a new ballpark. The question that looms is where is that ballpark going to be built. That's a question that really the community must answer.
What have you learned about St. Petersburg in the past seven months?
We've learned about how active this community is when it comes to issues about its future and its waterfront.
There's also a recognition of the importance of baseball. That's one of the clear messages that the mayor sent on Wednesday — that baseball and the tradition here and what the Rays can provide to the community is very important.
Time-honored question: If you could change one thing about the past seven months, would you?
No, the last seven months were necessary to help crystallize the issue that community support is required for us to take this big step forward and make sure the Rays will thrive here in St. Pete and Tampa Bay over the long term.
One of the raps you got stuck with during this process was that you weren't talking enough with the county government. Fair or unfair?
I do wish that we had been communicating more closely with the county earlier in this process, and we're encouraged by the county's support of this new direction for the effort.
Did you properly gauge the reaction that a ballpark on the waterfront would create?
I don't think you can gauge that before proposing it. But I don't think that was the largest hurdle the proposal faced.
Before I answer that, there has been a baseball stadium on those grounds for the last seven or eight decades. I think the hurdle was the time frame — the decisions that needed to be made in the very near future to allow for a November referendum. We were answering many of the big questions, but to sufficiently answer those questions, more time was probably needed.
As a coalition of community leaders discusses alternatives for a new ballpark, are the Rays willing to talk about a possible retractable roof with air-conditioning?
Yeah, we're open to the idea. The coalition and I believe (coalition chairman and Progress Energy CEO) Jeff Lyash said he doesn't want to impose restrictions on how the coalition works. We're okay with that.
Does that mean you would consider a stadium outside of St. Petersburg?
If that's the direction the coalition goes, we'll go alongside in that investigation. We are a St. Pete-based business. But we have to serve Tampa Bay and we have to make sure the new ballpark serves Tampa Bay and provides access to the entire region's population.
You live in a home in South Tampa. Have you been working the streets there, knocking on your neighbors' doors, putting out yard signs?
I have not seen one sign for the ballpark, pro or con, in Hillsborough.
You didn't put one in your front yard?
I did not.
Any particular reason? You didn't want people knocking on your door? Or you're not there enough.
What are your predictions for this year's baseball season?
A very exciting pennant run.
Are you guys internally talking about maybe, possibly preselling playoff tickets?
Yeah, the phrase 'playoff priority' has entered our vocabulary. Fans are asking about it. We have a number of businesses and fans buying second-half season tickets to get playoff priority.
Where do you think the Tampa Bay Rays will be playing baseball in five years?
In Tampa Bay.
I thought you were going to say 'American League East.'
You know, stranger things have happened there, too.
Can the Tampa Bay Rays make it long term in the Tampa Bay area?
We're even more optimistic about the ballclub and its long term prospects. …We're very encouraged about the Rays' viability and vitality in Tampa Bay. Stu (team owner Stuart Sternberg) decided to pursue the Rays in great part because of his faith and confidence in Tampa Bay as a place where baseball can flourish. There is a recognition today that a community effort is going to be needed to provide that fitting home for Major League Baseball.