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St. Petersburg scrambles to prep for Series of fortunate events

ST. PETERSBURG

The stadium that rarely sold out was filled to the rafters, the Backstreet Boys were singing the national anthem, and 42,000 rabid fans made it difficult to hear yourself cheer.

As the opening game of St. Petersburg's first World Series unfolded, Mayor Rick Baker turned to his wife in disbelief.

"I said ... we're watching the World Series in St. Petersburg! I almost had to pinch myself to remind myself of that," Baker recalled. "Here's the thing. Once you're in the World Series you know this is it, this is the big stage."

The Tampa Bay Rays' pennant win has thrust Baker into his most public role ever: host of one of the nation's largest annual sporting events. In the span of two weeks, with little time to prepare, Baker and his staff scrambled to put together a last-minute championship party, assemble a plan for security and traffic, grant dozens of interviews to visiting reporters, turn a downtown landmark into baseball central, and generally ensure the city's smooth debut on the international stage.

To prepare, city officials sought advice from their counterparts in Boston, Detroit, St. Louis and Denver, the most recent cities to host the World Series. Daily staff meetings ensured that everyone was on the same page. The Rays helped, too, said Baker, providing counsel and passing on messages from Major League Baseball. Workdays that started at 6 a.m. ran until 1 a.m., a frenzy of media interviews, parties, news conferences, baseball games and, oh, yeah, the city's everyday business.

"Everybody's a little tired," Baker said. "Everyone is working long hours. There is a lot to it. But you've got the adrenaline of knowing you are involved in something you've never been involved with before in your life and that you might not get another chance to experience. So that kind of carries you through it."

Security is a top priority, Baker said.

The city shut down Central Avenue from 11th to 13th streets between 5 p.m. and 2 a.m. for each home game. All roads immediately surrounding Tropicana Field were also closed during each game.

St. Petersburg police canceled all days off Wednesday and Thursday. Pinellas County sheriff's deputies were called in to help direct traffic and keep an eye out for rowdy fans.

Police said they ejected 41 people from Tropicana Field on Wednesday night, arresting eight.

Another 14 received notices to appear in court for illegally selling tickets or counterfeit merchandise like T-shirts and hats outside the stadium.

Only 29 ejections were reported Thursday night and just one arrest at the Trop for disorderly intoxication. Police said they issued 10 notices to appear to ticket scalpers violating the "clean zone." No arrests were made for selling counterfeit merchandise during Game 2.

"Some of the unknowns initially were how many people would show up in the immediate area to enjoy the ambience," said police spokesman Bill Proffitt. "But everything went pretty smoothly. We had a plan in place."

Downtown businesses said the heavy security kept order as thousands descended on the area.

"It's been good," said Matthew Meal, manager at Cafe Bohemia on Central Avenue. "There are a lot more cars than usual ... some rowdy fans, but I think they have it under control."

Directing traffic was the city's next major challenge.

One shuttle turned into nine to transport fans from downtown to the stadium during the playoffs, and then to 13 for the World Series. A marketing campaign advised fans to show up early on game days to avoid traffic.

Traffic lights were set to flash red and yellow to help police directing motorists. Property owners around the stadium were allowed to temporarily convert vacant lots to parking lots, creating an additional 2,000 spaces. The generous supply kept parking prices at about $20, said Joe Kubicki, the city's transportation and parking director.

"After each event we met to discuss what worked and what didn't work," he said. "We basically tweaked the plan every day."

On Monday, less than 24 hours after the Rays won the American League Championship, the city hosted a celebration for the Rays at the Pier. Hours before the event, employees were still scrambling to book bands and appearances by the team. Staffers at the city landmark rented a screen and invited fans to attend the area's largest viewing party every night of the World Series.

The hard work seemed to pay off. National media showed images of the city's skyline and downtown. If there were critics, they kept their thoughts to themselves.

"It really lifted people's spirits. There is a lot to be said for that," Baker said. "We see a lot of financial news that is negative right now, so to have something like this that is really rallying the whole state… it makes them proud about the town."

Can Baker and his staff keep up the momentum if the World Series comes back next week?

Definitely, the mayor said.

"I'll sleep later, in two weeks," he said. "I may never get another chance to do this again."

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

St. Petersburg scrambles to prep for Series of fortunate events 10/24/08 [Last modified: Saturday, October 25, 2008 1:58pm]
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