The opening lineup for a baseball task force is an impressive mix of corporate heavy hitters and civic leaders with proven records of community service. The sniping from some quarters that began as soon as the announcement was made is predictable and premature. But it reflects the considerable public interest and the challenges in ensuring Tampa Bay's future as a viable major league baseball market.
Jeff Lyash, president and chief executive officer of Progress Energy Florida, took his time and methodically assembled the 11-member leadership team for A Baseball Community. He acknowledges there were plenty of strong candidates among the 300 applicants, and there will be ample opportunities to be involved in this broad-based effort in three subgroups that will work to increase fan support, raise corporate support and study stadium options.
When those subgroups are created, it will be particularly important that they have race, gender and geographic balance. The ABC leadership team includes just one member from Hillsborough, Chuck Sykes of Sykes Enterprises, and none from other surrounding counties. The committees working on fan and corporate support will need additional members from Hillsborough as well as from Pasco, Manatee and beyond. To be successful, the Rays have to be a regional franchise like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
ABC has to be transparent. Lyash says his intent is to follow the Sunshine Law that applies to local government even though this group will be organized as a private nonprofit. That will mean holding its meetings in public and making its records public. This may be cumbersome, but it is necessary and should provide additional credibility. There always will be vocal critics who don't care if baseball is part of the fabric of the Tampa Bay community and don't want to invest a nickel in its success. They are entitled to their view, but they should not drown out this public discussion. The more public light on the process, the better the chances of developing proposals that will attract broad public support. And remember: When it comes to deciding the stadium issue, ABC can only study and recommend. The final decisions will be made by elected officials, in public, and by the voters if a referendum is required.
The work by these civic volunteers needs to begin quickly. There are opportunities to help build public and corporate support for the Rays as the team makes its first run for the playoffs. If they make it to the postseason, that will bring more attention to the inadequacies of Tropicana Field. Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College, calls the Trop "the worst stadium in baseball.'' When such a nationally known critic of new stadiums makes that sort of declaration, it emphasizes the urgency to jump-start the discussion about alternatives.