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St. Petersburg to see its final spring training game Friday after 94 years

After 94 years together, spring training and the city of St. Petersburg likely part ways Friday when the Tampa Bay Rays play their final spring game at Al Lang Field at Progress Energy Park.

The 1:05 p.m. start against the Cincinnati Reds marks the end of an era that has spanned nine franchises, at least five ballparks and three practice facilities.

"It's sure the end of spring training as we know it," said City Council Chairman Jamie Bennett. "We're going to miss it."

Where are the Rays going?

The Rays will train in Port Charlotte at the Charlotte County Sports Plex. Once the spring home of baseball's Texas Rangers, Charlotte County and the team agreed to a $27.2-million renovation of the facility.

Why are the Rays leaving?

The Rays like the Port Charlotte location because it is close enough (about 90 minutes from Tropicana Field) to allow the team to establish a year-round presence by moving its major league and minor league spring training camps, as well as the team's injury rehabilitation facilities.

But it is far enough that the team feels it will benefit on the business side by expanding its presence in the state with the hope of becoming more of a regional franchise. It is the only major league team that plays spring training and regular season games in the same city.

Renovated facilities didn't hurt, either.

What will happen to Progress Energy Park?

That's perhaps the biggest unknown. The Rays want to turn the spring training site into a new 34,000-seat permanent home for the team. If that doesn't happen, city officials and residents have discussed a mix of ideas, including a park, a park mixed with commercial development, or leaving it as a baseball field.

Could the city get another team to hold its spring training at Progress Energy Park?

Not likely, at least not anytime soon. Most teams already play in new or renovated stadiums or have long-term leases to stay where they are. If a team were interested in moving to St. Petersburg, it probably would not happen unless the city was willing to invest millions of dollars to renovate the site.

What's the financial impact to the city because of the move?

It's hard to say. St. Petersburg technically loses money because of spring training. It pays the Rays about $1-million to maintain Progress Energy Park and the team's practice fields across town. But the city would likely have to spend that money anyway if a team were not here. The city earns about $85,000 a year in parking revenues at Progress Energy Park and also gets a portion of the ticket and naming rights revenues from the stadium.

Did the Rays only move because they wanted to build a new stadium on the Progress Energy Park site?

Team officials say they never seriously discussed building a new permanent home at the stadium until the deal with Charlotte County was completed. That said, one project may have helped push along the other one.

Aaron Sharockman can be reached at asharockman@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2273.

Fast facts

Progress Energy Park, home of Al Lang Field

Opened: 1947; renovated in 1977

Number of seats: 6,439

Named for: Former mayor who brought spring training to the city

Final game: 1:05 p.m. Friday, vs. Cincinnati Reds

St. Petersburg to see its final spring training game Friday after 94 years 03/23/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 26, 2008 8:52am]
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