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'Mr. Baseball' steps down from Pinellas County Commission

Until the votes are tallied tonight, Pinellas County's future political leadership is unknown. But one big change is certain: Bob Stewart will no longer sit on the County Commission.

Stewart, 70, is the commission's longest-serving member, having been elected in 1994. Before that, he spent almost a decade on the St. Petersburg City Council, where he helped drive efforts to bring baseball to the city.

In March, he decided against another run for office; he presides as chairman today over his last commission meeting. Republican Nancy Bostock or Democrat Rene Flowers will win his countywide seat.

"I'm always anxious to hear his perspective on whatever the issue is," said County Commissioner Susan Latvala, who has served with Stewart since 2000. "He is a wise man. I'm going to miss him."

Stewart's record of public service is lengthy and diverse. He helped bring a federal Job Corps campus to St. Petersburg, got voter approval for extensions of the Penny for Pinellas sales tax and expanded county economic development initiatives.

But Stewart is known as "Mr. Baseball" for a reason.

He first became involved in the city's bid for baseball in 1977 when he worked as vice president for development at Eckerd College. Later, as a member of the City Council, he was a crucial advocate for building what is now Tropicana Field, despite the lack of a commitment from Major League Baseball that a franchise was guaranteed. Stewart stresses he was only one among many who helped in the city's chase for a team. He calls himself a "surviving symbol" of that time.

He threw out the ceremonial first pitch in Game 1 of the recent World Series. Though the Tampa Bay Rays lost the series to the Philadelphia Phillies, Stewart said the Rays' journey from the league's deepest valleys to the near summit affirmed decades of work.

"It's further proof that if you want something bad enough, and you believe enough in it, and you can find enough allies, you can accomplish great things," he said.

At this morning's commission meeting, Stewart will present a proclamation to team president Matt Silverman that designates today Tampa Bay Rays Day.

Stewart said he wished more work had been done to tackle regional transportation and public safety issues. Much can be done, he said, by consolidating the efforts of area governments.

Stewart plans to spend more time in Colorado, where his three sons and four granddaughters live and where he owns a home in Crested Butte. But St. Petersburg will remain his home base. And he'll stay involved with A Baseball Community, a group of local leaders exploring where and whether to build a new Rays stadium.

"I want to stay involved in the life of the community," Stewart said. "I've invested too much to just stay on the sidelines."

Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4166.

'Mr. Baseball' steps down from Pinellas County Commission 11/03/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 5, 2008 9:08pm]
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