ST. PETERSBURG — When the Rays play their home opener next week, I'll be dreaming about the day I can finally watch a game outside.
Being an "outdoors" editor, it probably comes as no surprise that I don't like indoor, domed stadiums. And like Crash Davis, I'm no fan of artificial turf or the designated hitter, either.
With that said, I will acknowledge that the Rays have to overcome some pretty big obstacles — parking, financing, voter approval — before a new stadium is actually built on the shores of Tampa Bay in St. Petersburg.
Environmentalists have also cried foul because the stadium plans call for about two-thirds of an acre of bay bottom to be filled to make way for the outfield.
This is 2008. The days of dredge and fill are over. Why should we let some developer dump dirt in our bay?
The answer is simple. In the long run, it could be the best thing to happen to the bay since modifications to the Clean Water Act in 1977.
Before you start e-mailing and calling, hear me out.
The area in question is not ideal marine habitat, thanks to runoff from city streets and garbage tossed by irresponsible citizens. If the Rays are permitted to fill a small section of the bay, the state should require the team to do habitat restoration someplace where it can really make a difference, such as Weedon Island in St. Petersburg, Fantasy Island in Hillsborough Bay or Terra Ceia in Manatee County.
In the end, the amount of habitat gained will probably be 100 times that of the habitat lost.
But the team doesn't have to wait until November to do its fair share. It can start right now.
Tampa Bay Watch, one of the bay area's leading environmental groups, has proved that sea grass and salt marshes can be replanted, oyster bars can be rebuilt and sea walls can be transformed from sterile slabs of concrete into thriving ecosystems that support a variety of marine life.
Tampa Bay Watch depends on donations, in the form of both time and money, from folks like you and I to keep its programs going. But imagine what the not-for-profit and other groups like it could do with some major corporate backing.
If the Rays spend a fraction of the millions that will go to the new stadium on habitat improvements, it has the potential to be one of the greatest environmental success stories in recent years.
Some in the environmental community will disagree. Many environmentalists have a "line in the sand" attitude when it comes to waterfront development. A stadium plan will surely be challenged by a number of environmental groups. Lawsuits will be filed, and in the end, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars will be spent on legal fees.
But before everybody gets too tort happy, imagine how many oyster bars could be built for just one-one hundredth of a long, drawn-out legal battle?
And a new waterfront stadium could be a boon for the bay in other ways as well. As part of the mitigation plan, the Rays could develop a mini-ecosystem just past centerfield where marine biology students could engage in real-time science projects.
Between innings, the scoreboard could carry environmental messages about water quality and habitat destruction, turning thousands of baseball fans into stewards of the bay. Before you know it, major-league announcers will be talking about the trout and redfish swimming beyond the rightfield fence, bringing national attention to what could become, once again, one of the most productive estuaries in the United States.
Most Tampa Bay residents know very little about the bay. That's because they spend most of their lives in air-conditioned homes, offices and cars. "The Bay" is just that big body of water they drive over between Tampa and St. Petersburg.
But sit outside on warm summer evening and watch the water for a while. It won't be long before you start wondering what lies beneath the surface as pelicans dive for bait and fishermen fight tarpon.
This column will surely generate many responses from environmentalists and other stadium opponents. For the record, I consider myself an environmentalist and have even been called a "tree hugger," among other things.
A waterfront stadium has its challenges. But I'm an optimist. I think bringing thousands of people down to the bay, 81 nights a year, will only ensure the future of our estuary.
And who knows, maybe I'm dreaming, but someday I'd love to catch a snook and a ball from the seat of my sea kayak.
Terry Tomalin can be reached at (727) 893-8808.
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Terry Tomalin, Outdoors editor, (727) 893-8808 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 8808 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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