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On Tampa Bay Rays' opening day, lots of new stadium talk

ST. PETERSBURG — Ken Nichol has been to Tropicana Field tons of times to watch the Tampa Bay Rays play ball.

Still, there was something significant to him about Tuesday's Opening Day against the Baltimore Orioles.

If chatter predicting the Rays could have a great year proves true, Nichol said, it could bring progress toward a new stadium.

"It could start a domino effect," said Nichol, a 72-year-old retiree who lives in South Pasadena.

Nichol's son Chris, a 45-year-old college professor, wasn't sure about the optimism, but believes something needs to be done.

He said he supported the failed attempt at a waterfront stadium.

"You gotta spend money to make money," Chris Nichol said. "If we win it all, it's still not going to make the Trop the Taj Mahal."

Their thoughts were echoed by many fans who milled around at a downtown block party and tailgated near Tropicana Field hours before the season's first game.

Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg continues to maintain relative silence in the discussion over a new stadium, but did say Tuesday he agrees with most of the findings of the ABC Coalition, a civic group looking at stadium possibilities.

Asked if that included the inclusion of two Hillsborough County sites among three possible new homes, Sternberg said: "I didn't disagree with much of what they said in the report."

Sternberg said he plans to remain patient with the process, saying "I don't expect to be mouthing off or anything. We'll take it day by day."

Fans, however, had clear thoughts on what they want, and don't want, to see happen.

Cheryl Donahue, a season ticket holder and school psychologist from St. Petersburg, said she wants the team to stay put.

"To build a whole new stadium when this one is perfectly fine does not make sense to me, fiscally," she said. "I think the fans want them to stay more than the politicians do. They're our team."

Jeremy Alexander, a 34-year-old title underwriter from Tampa, said he tries to get to 10 to 20 games per year. Alexander said although he thinks the Trop is outdated, he likes the location.

"This is probably the strongest team they've opened up the season with by far," he said. "I don't mind the commute."

Others were not nonchalant.

Agatha and Clarence Holton said they left their Tampa home at about 4:45 p.m. Tuesday for the trip to St. Petersburg.

They still missed the beginning of the 7:10 p.m. game because of traffic and parking issues.

The couple said they'd probably try to make it to more games if the stadium were more central.

"I enjoy the games when I come here," said Agatha Holton, a 64-year-old retired postal worker. "It's just inconvenient to those who live across the bay."

In an interview, Sternberg praised the coalition's process.

"It doesn't mean you can snap your fingers and have it happen. But at the very least it advanced the conversation and will be something of a touchstone to point to because I wouldn't disagree with the outcome of what they came up," he said. "Not to say I agree with everything, but I think they did a great job and it's a great starting point."

Sternberg also described season ticket sales as being "bad/not good" and said he won't set a target this season for attendance.

"Because of the euphoria of '08, we would have liked more of '08 to stick into '09, and what grew into '09 didn't stick into 2010 to the level we would have expected," he said.

For the Holtons and many other fans, it still comes down to one thing: wanting the Rays to make it back to the World Series, no matter where they're playing.

"That's why we came here tonight," Clarence Holton said. "To see a productive team."

On Tampa Bay Rays' opening day, lots of new stadium talk 04/06/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 7, 2010 12:28am]

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