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There are practical reasons for wanting baseball here

The countdown to baseball's announced decision date continues _ it says 10 days this morning _ and apparently everything that can be done has been done. Time to hope it goes right, particularly for the men who have agreed to pay what will amount to more than $125-million each to create what are sure to be losing baseball teams. Does this make any sense? Why should whole communities be hanging on this decision? Most citizens probably won't go to games and don't much care. And wouldn't Treasury Bills make a better investment?

For the true fan, and I was one once, but a long time ago, these are silly questions. The game is all. A local team will, like the sunshine itself, enrich life day by day. I recommend we excuse these good folks now. They will think my reasoning irrelevant; I must reach back in memory to recall why slight changes in batting averages were once all-consuming.

For the rest of us the case for baseball is like the case for Gasparilla, or development of downtown St. Petersburg. Although it is "just a game" played by overpaid men in funny hats, baseball is very much a part of the growth and maturing of the cities of Tampa Bay.

Gasparilla can be seen as a drunken parade, which it is. The Krewe that put it on was rightly seen as a throwback, with its exclusion of everybody but rich white males. Tampa was strengthened by its decision to pull out of involvement with those older bigoted policies last year before the national attention of the Super Bowl focused. The city now must decide whether a modified Krewe, or indeed any private club, should control the major civic celebration.

Isn't this a lot of fuss over nothing, you may ask. Why not just stop it? It's too much trouble. Here's the because:

Gasparilla is part of Tampa and Tampa Bay. It is one of the important things our fellow citizens across America know about us. For better or worse we are defined by Gasparilla. Were it simply to cease, that piece of definition would simply disappear, leaving us less likely to attract new employers, new business, new life. Which is why it is worth the energy to try to get it right.

Or downtown St. Petersburg _ why not just let it be quaint and anachronistic? Why should we be using public money to build a place to attract stores and restaurants, which seem to prefer the malls anyway?

The truth here seems to me stark. If a town is not living and growing, it is dying. If a town has no reason to exist, it ceases to exist. Where once stood a city known for its beauty and amenity, a fine place to live with a fascinating history, instead St. Petersburg would all too quickly become a suburb of indistinct definition. At best it could hope to be Queens to Tampa's New York City.

It is no accident that baseball has given our language the phrase "big league." When baseball comes to St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay, so does the big league status. Even if nothing else changed, a business owner in, say, Detroit would be much more likely to think the St. Petersburg he reads about every day in the box scores could meet the needs of a new plant.

As the Tampa Bay Bucs, for all their problems, have brought vitality to our area from across America, so too will the St. Pete Tropics, or whatever they end up being called. Sure there will be the hotel rooms and the tourist dollars and the rest of what the consultants promise, but far more important is the changed perception across America of St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay.

"But I like it the way it is," comes the voice from a cottage on a side street, or perhaps "I liked it the way it was. Why change?" Because "no change" is not among the choices. The choices are inaction, deterioration, and less money to solve bigger problems, or positive action to shape a growing city more to our liking.

Is the open waterfront crucial to a better city? Speak up and be heard. Are taxes rising too fast? Speak up, and perhaps a way can be found to bring improvements at lower cost. But we mustn't try to stop the world. Baseball is a good idea, even for those of us who are likely to attend seldom or never. Which brings us back to the countdown. Keep your fingers crossed.

Andrew Barnes is editor, president and chief executive of the St. Petersburg Times.

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