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Rays consider drafting Williams museum

(Ran North, South editions of PASCO TIMES)

It doesn't come as a huge surprise, but it looks like the end is drawing near for the Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame in Citrus County.

As reported in the St. Petersburg Times on Monday, the museum is expected to move some of its collection to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.

Rays president Matt Silverman, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, museum executive director Dave McCarthy and museum board member Gerald Nash were expected to elaborate during a 4 p.m. news conference Thursday at Tropicana Field.

The museum's eight board members - Nash, Claudia Williams, Stephen Tamposi, Thomas DiBenedetto, Jerry Rittenburg, George Katis, Bill Becknell and Harold Alfond - will meet this morning to discuss which prized memorabilia should be put on permanent display at the Trop, said Eric Abel, the museum's attorney.

A board majority must approve any changes, but everything seems to indicate that at least some, if not all, of the museum will be permanently moved.

Abel said the Devil Rays are interested in the museum's "Hitters Hall of Fame" wing, which centers around the accomplishments of hitters. The rest of the museum focuses on Ted Williams' baseball, military and fishing accomplishments.

"It's no secret we've been looking to strengthen the museum, our collection, and raise scholarship funds," McCarthy said. "If (moving) will get us to the point where we can do that without the expense of a building eating up our funds, then it is a good thing."

The museum opened in 1994 near Williams' home in Citrus Hills. A blockbuster opening drew celebrities such as Muhammad Ali, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. The annual induction ceremonies for the Hitters Hall of Fame brought a parade of baseball stars both young and old.

But since Williams' death in 2002, the museum has increasingly had trouble attracting visitors and big-name guests on a regular basis. The museum's location is becoming more of an issue, with its less than favorable distance to a metropolitan area and airport. An increasing number of events have been held offsite, including the relocation of the annual induction ceremonies to Fort Myers.

"I'm certain that if we could move or establish a satellite or permanent office in a more populated area," Abel said, "then it stands a much better chance to augment the reserve and operation funds of the museum."

Abel said the financial situation is not "teetering on trouble," but the museum could use more exposure to increase profits.

As previously reported in July 2004 in the Times, the museum did not receive an endowment or any money from Williams' estate. Instead, Williams donated items before his death. The combination of those items and public donations have made the museum worth several million dollars, although the assessed property value is $1.3-million, according to the county's property appraiser.

There has been talk in recent years of closing the Citrus site and relocating the museum to Boston, where a satellite site has opened.

Abel said Fenway Park has "expressed interest" in borrowing items, but the Devil Rays are the first professional team to discuss anything permanent.

The idea first came about under the new Devil Rays leadership, when Rich Hererra, the Rays' director of radio operations, went up to the museum last fall because his wife is a big Red Sox fan and his father-in-law liked Ted Williams.

"We were just goofing off on some random tourist trip," Hererra said. "We just wanted to see the museum."

After walking through, Hererra said, he called McCarthy and approached him about the deal that was expected to go through after today.

Museum officials have maintained through all discussions that the museum will continue to have a presence in Citrus County. Abel said that presence could mean continuing to offer scholarships to Citrus County students.

The museum offers five scholarships to Citrus County students and an additional five in Boston but would like to increase the total to 20, McCarthy said.

Times staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report. Dawn Reiss can be reached at (352) 860-7303 or dreiss@sptimes.com.

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