In a one-hour interview Tuesday, St. Petersburg Assistant City Manager Rick Dodge discussed the National League's tentative decision to award expansion franchises to Miami and Denver. He touched on some reasons why Tampa Bay was left out. He discussed the area's prospective ownership group, which is headed by Washington, D.C., lawyer Stephen Porter and wealthy investors Sidney and Allen Kohl. He talked about what should be done in the near future to attain a baseball franchise for the area, and he defended his actions and those of the city.
Dodge has been the local official most familiar with Tampa Bay's quest for a baseball team. Here are excerpts of what he had to say:
Did the Kohls' investment dwindle from $50-million to $5-million, as reported?
I've heard that. I've never heard it directly from a member of the (National League) Expansion Committee. I've heard that a number of times from people I know in baseball. Don't know whether that's accurate, but I've heard it often.
Some say the city should not have been surprised by the Porter group's problems _ that the city should have have known more about the group.
Somebody tell me how we would do that. Whenever the National League met with the ownership group they specifically did not want to meet with anyone but the ownership group. At all the meetings the ownership groups each met individually and privately. When they came down here it was a directive of the expansion committee to meet only with the ownership group ... . The business of financing and how that would be arranged was specifically restricted from the city or any participation other than baseball and the ownership group. If somebody has a suggestion of how that could have been accomplished I certainly would like to know.
You tried to get information from the ownership group about their financial package?
Yeah. And they said to us what they said to you: "That's none of your business. We're committed to everything that we're supposed to. We're meeting all the requirements. How we do that is the business of baseball and the business of this ownership group.'
Were there other means for you and other local leaders to find out about the group through other sources in baseball?
We always tried. The Expansion Committee kept that information to themselves. Other owners in baseball didn't know. This is not a group the city selected. This is a group Major League Baseball selected. This is the group that Major League Baseball looked through their financials and their character and their references and said these are the people that we think have the best opportunity to own and operate a franchise in Tampa Bay. They were selected by Major League Baseball.
We did what Major League Baseball requested, and that was bring forward qualified and interested groups to be evaluated. And I think we may never know why we were not selected ... . What everyone's trying to do now is there's still smoke on this battlefield. Everyone wants to turn their guns on somebody, and that's fine. But let's find out what happened.
If there's some errors made in judgment made on any part, that's appropriate to critique and criticize. But if (the Porter group) weren't tough and smart and well financed they never would have been selected in the first place. But did they perform in some way along the line that caused them to be de-selected? We're going to find that out. Everyone's going to find that out. It's the only ingredient that everybody doesn't have a full view of right today. The other ingredients seem to measure up pretty well, so the focus keeps coming back to that."
Will you meet with Stephen Porter on Wednesday to discuss what happened?
"Sure. But our inquiry's not going to stop with them. We're going to ask (baseball). If (a group) in a private transaction like that is going to alter itself in a way that will harm you, I'm not sure that there's much you can do about that. If there's something else, though, in the process that needs to be improved we want to know that. I don't have any reason to believe that there is (The Kohls) are telling us that they're committed to still bring a franchise here and very committed to doing that.
I think we'll all find out (why Tampa Bay was not recommended for a franchise), but we don't have all the pieces yet. It's an important inquiry, but I think a rush to judgment would be unfair until we really understand what transpired.
Is it clear that Tampa Bay lost because of the financial structure of the Porter group?
All I can tell you is significant people in the last four days indicated to me that that was the flaw. That was what was wrong.
Has this episode caused the city to change how it may deal with ownership groups and baseball in the future. Are there ways you can be more demanding?
I don't think that's the issue. I think the lesson in this is (to get) strong local ownership There's three reasons someone gets involved in the pursuit of a major league sports franchise. One, they love that sport. Two, they love their community. And three, they love a good business deal. If they're not deep-rooted in the community, then that becomes less of a factor in their decisions and what they do all along the process.
The investment in a major-league franchise at the current price and the current economics in baseball expansion was a very difficult business deal and certainly not one that would be attractive to most investors... Then you say, "Gosh, what you're really saying is we needed to have someone in the Tampa Bay community step up to do that.' Well, no one has (stepped up) of that league, in that caliber...
The message to those people in the billionaires club in Tampa Bay is we need you because we know how much you care about the area and how much you care about progress in this city and we know that you'll stay the course. But that call's gone out clearly.
So we've learned that we need millionaires and billionaires to step forward in the Tampa Bay area?
It's not new. We've known it. What I'm saying is whenever you don't have that and you step outside of the geographic boundaries of your community, you're going to have less sense of (responsibility to the area).
And I'm not suggesting for a moment that this ownership group didn't understand and appreciate in an affirmative kind of way the responsibility that they bore in this community. I'm not suggesting that. I'm suggesting that they knew we staked our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor on trying to get something done and they were our champions. I'm not ready to say they shirked it yet. I'm ready to say we need to find out."
Why should the people of Tampa Bay believe that you can complete the job of bringing a baseball team to the area?
I can't speak for the ownership group, but I've gotten 100 calls from people who believe and are telling me to keep believing and keep working on it because they know we can win and they don't want me to lose faith. So I feel humbled and buoyed up by the personal reaction that I've gotten. There isn't anybody in the community that wanted to win for the community more than I do.
Do you feel you're the right person for the job? In the aftermath of the National League's decision, some people have been suggesting otherwise.
I'm not running for any position. I've just always been trying to help. I believe in the community. And I believe in contributing to the community. And that's why I have chosen what I do for a career. This is not an issue about Rick Dodge. The only thing that counts is winning. The only thing. I know what we've done in the last 10 years and feel proud of what I've been able to contribute to date. If people in the community want to contribute, I'd be happy to do that. If they can find another way to make this thing work, that's fine too.