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Amid talk about Tropicana Field and Tampa Bay Rays, issue all comes back to money

ST. PETERSBURG

Bless its lopsided heart, Tropicana Field deserves better.

It deserves better than sabotage from inside, and it deserves better than blind faith from outside. It deserves real people having real discussions about what's best for the future.

Yes, the stadium was built on the cheap. And, yes, it is a homely mess.

But catwalks, broken lights and ESPN blowhards have no business in the discussion of whether the Tampa Bay area needs to consider the construction of a new stadium.

When Rays manager Joe Maddon said Tuesday that Tropicana Field was improper for Major League Baseball after 14 seasons, it sounded almost as silly as St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster once saying the catwalks were the equivalent of Wrigley Field's ivy.

This isn't about artificial turf or low-hanging speakers or lightning strikes on national television. This is about money. And it is about the future of baseball in Tampa Bay. And it might even be about the city of St. Petersburg's reputation and its ultimate direction.

So can we please cut through the nonsense?

There is a problem here, and it needs to be solved. Attendance and revenue streams at Tropicana Field are not sufficient for Major League Baseball's needs.

That doesn't mean Stu Sternberg is going broke, and it doesn't mean that we are ignoring the reality of Florida's economic crisis. It is simply an acknowledgement that the Rays are making far less money than 90-95 percent of their baseball business partners.

The question, is what do we do about it?

Because I feel confident in saying this problem is not going to solve itself. It is clear, each side is already researching new synonyms for intractable.

Sternberg rescued this franchise from the gutter and created a winning team with a pristine reputation almost overnight. He feels like he has done his part.

And the city built this stadium on the backs of its taxpayers, and handed it over to Major League Baseball at a token cost. St. Petersburg feels it has done its part.

And you know what? Both sides are right.

Yet the problem still remains.

The city has to acknowledge that support for the Rays at Tropicana Field has fallen horribly short of expectations. And the Rays have to acknowledge that they were well aware of the shortcomings and got the team at a bargain price because of that.

So let's stop trashing the stadium and the market. And let's stop acting as if the Tropicana Field lease is the Magna Carta.

Because if the two sides continue at this pace, neither is going to get the outcome it desires. Sternberg, I believe, will eventually sell the team. And St. Petersburg, I am certain, will eventually chase baseball from this market.

So where do we begin?

The Rays need to be honest. They need to say they believe their best chance for survival is in downtown Tampa. And the mayor needs to be realistic. He needs to say he is willing to listen to suggestions that will help St. Petersburg pay off its debts and create something visionary at the Tropicana Field site.

Of course, there are other partners in this dance.

Major League Baseball, for instance. I know the commissioner has had his hands full with an ownership mess in Los Angeles, and a collective bargaining agreement with the union, but he will eventually have to turn his attention this way.

And Bud Selig needs to acknowledge that MLB owes St. Petersburg a debt. We were his street corner tart for more than a decade, helping stadiums get built in other markets. Maybe that doesn't get us a lifetime pass, but MLB is flush with enough cash that it needs to take an active part in any new stadium discussions here.

And then, naturally, there are you and your neighbors.

Ultimately, you need to decide whether Tampa Bay wants to remain a Major League Baseball community. Because the Rays are not going to be at Tropicana Field in 10 years. They will either move to Hillsborough, or they will move elsewhere.

I don't know what the final percentage might be, but any new stadium is going to involve some public funding. That's not ideal. It's probably not even fair. But it is reality.

If you still think Major League Baseball is a way to attract more attention, more exposure and more money to a market, then it might be worth an investment. If you think it adds to the quality of life for you and your children, then that also is a worthy investment.

It is not an easy issue, nor a simple decision.

So let's stop acting like it is. Let's stop shouting. Let's stop whining. Let's stop arguing.

Because we all deserve better.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Amid talk about Tropicana Field and Tampa Bay Rays, issue all comes back to money 07/19/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 20, 2011 7:05pm]
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