The road has been long and arduous, an 18-year journey through other cities and other places, earnest but futile attempts to claim teams that belonged to others.
But now the road leads home, home to Tampa Bay, home to home plate at the ThunderDome.
Thursday, Tampa Bay finally got a baseball team to call its own.
Major-league owners voted unanimously to award two new franchises, creating the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks, which will begin play in 1998. The teams, which cost $130-million each, were not assigned to leagues.
"It's been a path of 10,000 steps, 10,000 phone calls, 10,000 frustrations," Tampa Bay ownership group leader Vince Naimoli said. "At this point, we're at the end of that path. But we're also at the beginning of a new path, a fun path."
The fun started shortly before 1 p.m., when Naimoli and Phoenix counterpart Jerry Colangelo were announced as owners of the 29th and 30th major-league franchises. It went on Thursday afternoon during a rally at the ThunderDome and will continue through the official celebration planned for Saturday at St. Petersburg's Vinoy Park, if not all the way until Opening Day 1998.
"If there was a greater day in Tampa Bay history, I don't know what it was," Naimoli said. "I think this is the greatest day in Tampa Bay history."
Hell didn't freeze over and pigs didn't fly, but the community that absolutely, positively couldn't get a baseball team finally did.
"The city just had a big load lifted off its shoulders," St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer said. "It's arrived. The frustration should be gone. Our appearance to the world is no longer Sports Illustrated's image of losers. We're no longer an Albanian village or whatever we've been called. St. Petersburg is now taking its place in the great cities, I think."
As seven previous attempts to secure a team failed, the Tampa Bay baseball effort became a symbol of futility and the butt of jokes around the country.
"What can you say about a major-league city now?" said former Dunedin Mayor Cecil Engelbert, a long-time supporter. "I think all the criticism has got to go away. You can't hardly argue with success."
The success was easy to gauge Thursday _ the ear-to-ear smile on Naimoli's face, the joy in St. Petersburg city administrator Rick Dodge's eyes, the scenes of jubilation around the Tampa Bay area, the frantic sales of Devil Rays caps and T-shirts.
But the measurements will be different as Naimoli and his partners build Tampa Bay's team.
The organization won't have any players until the June 1996 amateur draft and won't play its first game for more than three years, but there is plenty to do.
Naimoli's first official business as an owner will start Monday, when he opens negotiations with the city on a final lease for the ThunderDome. A signed lease and a governmental agreement to make modifications to the stadium must be submitted to baseball by the end of the month as part of the formal membership agreement.
A decision also will be made in the next month on the team name. Naimoli said the ownership group was ambivalent in deciding between Devil Rays and Manta Rays, but was steered by MLB marketing officials toward Devil Rays. Initial fan reaction was less than enthusiastic, and Naimoli said Thursday he would let the fans show their preference through a call-in poll.
Should the name be changed, there will be a new wave of merchandise. The Devil Rays items, Naimoli said, would become "collector's items."
The new teams get a share of merchandise sales, so the sale of the first T-shirt Thursday produced the first money Naimoli will take in. But it will take a long time for him to break even.
Each of the new teams will have to pay $130-million entry fees. For their first four years, starting in 1998, they will not receive full shares of baseball's national broadcast monies. With teams currently averaging about $6-million a year in broadcast income, those losses and other terms of the deal could push the total net cost over $150-million.
There were some tense moments Wednesday when Colangelo and Naimoli had to band together and negotiate the final price, which the owners had sought to raise from previous discussions.
But Thursday, the two new owners said they could live with the deals they made. "It was within the parameters we established before we got here," Naimoli said.
The deal is extremely complex and Colangelo said the "actual value will be less than anticipated."
The fee will be paid in four installments. The first payment, of about $25-million, is due July 1. The final payment is due in November 1997. Naimoli has the right to attend all owners meetings, but will only have voting power after the fee is paid.
Naimoli is the managing general partner of an all-local ownership group. It includes Outback Steakhouse founders Bob Basham and Chris Sullivan, trucking magnate Mark Bostick, construction equipment dealer Lance Ringhaver, businesswoman P. J. Benton and lawyer J. Rex Farrior. Corporate partners are Florida Progress, Home Shopping Network and RISCORP Management Services. Former Nutmeg Mills founders Richard and Marty Jacobsen decided not to participate in the group.
The decision to award a team to Tampa Bay was made first by the seven-owner expansion committee, then passed on to the owners for discussion Wednesday and the final vote Thursday morning. Florida Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga, who once opposed efforts to bring a team to Tampa Bay, made the motion for approval.
"I called him for his support a few months ago and he said he would support us, and he did," Naimoli said.
Tampa Bay's fan base, market size and stadium were all positives. Some owners said the strength and plan of the ownership group was a major factor.
"Everything about Tampa Bay was absolutely perfect," said Atlanta Braves president Stan Kasten, a member of the committee. "They have an outstanding group of owners. I'm 100-percent convinced they will have a jewel of an organization on the field as well as in the front office. They have an outstanding business plan in place. I was very impressed with the quality of people. I don't see how it could fail. It's a guaranteed winner, a big winner."
Other owners spoke of Naimoli's attributes and the tenacity of Dodge, who led the St. Petersburg effort for nearly 15 years. "The best part about it is that we expanded to two areas that deserved it," said New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, a Tampa resident. "And if anybody ever deserved it, Tampa Bay does."
Expansion committee chairman John Harrington said, "It was their time. That's all I can say about St. Petersburg."
But there were other factors. Naimoli had a series of lawsuits pending against baseball as a result of his unsuccessful 1992 effort to buy the San Francisco Giants. A letter from Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth was circulated this week to remind the owners of the legal situation.
And as baseball owners have battled their striking players in a bitter labor dispute, there has been considerable pressure from politicians tugging at baseball's anti-trust exemption.
Players union chief Donald Fehr said that played a part in Thursday's decision.
"I think primarily you can thank your two U.S. senators, and I mean that quite seriously," Fehr said. "If Bob (Graham) and Connie (Mack) had not been insistent and we had not been pushing the anti-trust bill, the likelihood of expansion or that it would have gone to Tampa Bay would have been greatly reduced."
The owners could not decide Thursday whether to put the Devil Rays and Diamondbacks into the American League, the National League or put one in each and implement inter-league play. The expansion committee made no recommendation and a motion to put both in the AL was rejected. The owners said they will decide by Jan. 1, 1997.
Naimoli said he had no preference. That is understandable after what he has been through, and what the area has been through.
"I can't help but think back to the disappointments," civic leader Jack Critchfield said at the Dome rally. "But I've got to get those out of my mind, because we're not going to be disappointed this time."
_ Staff writers Don Banks and John Romano contributed to this report.