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Rays' stadium plan delay could help in long run

It was the best day you could ever expect. It was the day the Rays took a step toward a new ballpark.

Either that, or it was the worst day you might ever fear. It was the day the Rays took their first steps toward leaving town.

It was as simple as that, really. When you go beneath all of the rhetoric, beyond all of the unanswered questions and behind the strategic withdrawal by a team from a vote it could not win, there is only one thing to decide.

Did the Rays get closer to their new stadium Wednesday?

Or, perhaps, did they get further away?

Oh, all of the right people had all of the right grins at an afternoon news conference in which the Rays backed away from their efforts to get a vote for a new stadium on the fall ballot. After months of watching their trial balloon get whacked repeatedly by a legion of voters with red anti-stadium signs in their yards, the Rays really had no choice (and, to be honest, no chance).

For all of the talk about community and coalitions, however, a new stadium remains at the heart of this. Somewhere. Sometime. Some place. And at some re-determined price.

Anyone who thinks differently is fooling himself. And anyone connected to this coalition who does not see that as the goal is wasting everyone's time.

All of which, it seems, brings us to a brand new set of questions.

And, at this point, a complete absence of answers.

Where should a new stadium be built? Should it be voted upon or decided by elected officials? What's the timetable? What's the cost? What happens to the development plans for Tropicana Field? How much of the bill will the Rays pay if the site offers lower revenue streams? Should there be a retractable roof? And if so, who pays the extra freight for that?

Those asking such questions on Wednesday might as well have been carrying plutonium. No one had any answers. At the start of this journey, let history note, there was "vague.''

Still, I find myself feeling optimistic about this. Despite all of the questions, despite the fact that getting a stadium built is always difficult, I think this was the move that will get a new park built. After all, there were too many smart people in the room for no one to be aware of the stakes. There were too many people who are active in the community for them to become passive now.

There are those who will tell you that, no matter where the stadium was or how much the owner was willing to pay, it was going to take the leadership of the community to get it built. If that's true, it's a shame this sort of coalition wasn't built from the start.

So go ahead, start to argue about Derby Lane and Al Lang, about Toytown and about Tampa. At this point, it is enough to leave San Antonio and Las Vegas out of the debate. After all, most of us would agree that, at the right price and at the right place, it is better to have baseball than not.

As for Rays owner Stuart Sternberg, Wednesday was a good day. For months, he has been ripped as an out-of-town land-grabber trying to push across an idea that residents seemed to hate. Other owners might have dug in their heels and pushed forward, and other owners might have made threats. Sternberg merely handed off the responsibility for getting a park built.

By doing so, Sternberg seemed to be aware of the community's feelings. He looked patient, because if we know nothing else, this certainly won't speed up the timetable. He looked cooperative. Also, he stopped spending gobs of money on a losing campaign.

Oh, perhaps the skeptical part of you worries about the days ahead. Remember when the Bucs were up for sale, and every interested buyer kept talking about a new stadium? As soon as the Glazer family purchased it, and as soon as they praised Tampa in their opening news conference, a politician said aloud: "Gee. Maybe we don't have to build a stadium, after all.'' And the feet-dragging began. (If you remember, Raymond James Stadium was built by only a narrow vote, which kept the team in town.)

In the case of the Rays, you would hate for the coalition to plod along. The headlines about the stadium are about to stop. The red signs (those that have not been amended to stop any stadium anywhere) are about to go in the garage. The worst thing that could happen would be if the same community leaders who talked so glowingly about baseball on Wednesday suddenly decided they have all the time in the world.

Let's face it. There has never been an owner who wanted a new stadium and then, when he found out he couldn't get one, simply shrugged and stayed put. From the moment Sternberg said his team desired a new home, the choice was clear.

Eventually, this will be about a building a ballpark, or it will be about losing a ball club.

Me? I say they get it built. Near Toytown. By opening day, 2013. With a retractable roof.

And, as happened with Miami's new stadium, without a vote.

Rays' stadium plan delay could help in long run 06/25/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 1, 2008 3:51pm]

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