Monday, December 11, 2017
Editorials

Editorial: Dear commissioner: Here's how to help keep baseball in Tampa Bay

Dear baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred,

Welcome to Tampa Bay, and thanks so much for becoming the first baseball commissioner to attend opening day with the Tampa Bay Rays. This is our home team's 19th season, and the franchise and its players have become part of the fabric of our community. As you know, we are fortunate to have a competent, forward-looking — and patient — team owner in Stuart Sternberg, and we look forward to seeing exciting young players such as Chris Archer and Kevin Kiermaier play before a sold-out crowd this afternoon at Tropicana Field.

This opening day is different for us, because we are playing two games at once. One is on the field, and the other is in conversations on both sides of the bay about a new stadium. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman negotiated a reasonable agreement with the Rays that finally allows the team to start looking at sites in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties for a new stadium to replace the outdated Trop, and a forward-looking City Council finally ended a yearslong stalemate and approved it. By the end of the year, it's quite possible the Rays could be focused on a particular spot for a new home.

Commissioner, here's how you could help preserve major league baseball in Tampa Bay:

1 Respect how long and hard this region fought for its own franchise. You are aware of Tampa Bay's deep roots with spring training, from the Yankees and the Reds to the Mets and Cardinals to the Phillies and Blue Jays. It might be worth a refresher course on how we spent years pursuing our own franchise and how many times we were used as pawns by other teams seeking new stadiums back home. Some of us still have our Florida White Sox shirts. Remember the terrific leap of faith St. Petersburg and Pinellas County took in the 1980s to build the dome without a team, and the excitement when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays first took the field in 1998. As baseball commissioner, you should be just as opposed to moving franchises now as your predecessors.

2 Recognize that Tampa Bay is a different place today. We work better than ever as one region, and we recognize that is the key to success even as we appreciate the special qualities of Tampa, St. Petersburg and our other communities. Don't expect to play Tampa and St. Petersburg off each other in a fight over where a new stadium should go. We're past those old battles, and it won't work. This editorial page, which vigorously advocated building a stadium in St. Petersburg rather than Tampa in the 1980s, now supports finding the best stadium site regardless of whether it is in Pinellas or Hillsborough County. It will take a regional effort to ensure the franchise's long-term success.

3 Imagine the possibilities. At the Trop, ponder how those 85 acres could be transformed into an exciting new development that could include a baseball stadium. St. Petersburg is seeking a private partner to help develop the vision, and it is going to take time and plenty of public conversations to agree on the right mix. But this will be transformative for the city with or without a stadium. In Tampa, there is not a similar blank canvas but there are several potential stadium sites that could work. In either case, a new stadium should be relatively close to the downtown center and easily accessible.

4 Acknowledge this market is different. The Rays are still building support as a young franchise. Television ratings are high, but attendance at the games is low. We don't have the corporate headquarters, personal income levels or transit systems of bigger, more established baseball markets. It's hot, and it often rains in the late afternoon. We do have plenty of baseball fans, low unemployment and an improving economy. The future is bright, with the redevelopment of the Trop site in St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik's $2 billion redevelopment effort in Tampa. But to make baseball work for the long term is going to take an innovative approach — and we can't afford to make a mistake.

5 Prepare to help pay for a stadium. The days of taxpayers paying the entire cost of new stadiums are over, and the Rays recognize that. But stadiums have gotten more expensive, and there are limited streams of public revenue in Pinellas and Hillsborough to direct toward a stadium. The gap the Rays will have to cover is likely to be significant.

6 Pursue structural changes to baseball. The NFL helps pay for stadiums, and Major League Baseball doesn't. The NFL has a salary cap, and baseball doesn't. Smaller baseball markets by themselves can't build the modern stadiums or keep the star players that build fan support. The Rays have done a terrific job becoming competitive on a tight budget, but it's been no fun watching Carl Crawford and James Shields leave — or rejuvenating ninth-inning closers who cash in elsewhere. It is painful to think of watching David Price pitch at the Trop this season in a Red Sox uniform.

All that said, hope springs eternal. It's opening day, and the stadium search is under way. Thanks for joining us, and we hope you have time for a quick trip to the beach, or a Cuban sandwich in Ybor City, or a stroll through the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg — or at least a beer after the game at Ferg's.

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