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She has a big league vision for a new Rays stadium

Melanie Lenz, right, holds her son Ben, 2, as she talks with Tricia Duffy before the start of the exhibition opener Wednesday between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Washington Nationals at Charlotte Sports Park. Lenz managed the project that transformed the aged stadium into a new spring training facility for the Rays.
Melanie Lenz, right, holds her son Ben, 2, as she talks with Tricia Duffy before the start of the exhibition opener Wednesday between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Washington Nationals at Charlotte Sports Park. Lenz managed the project that transformed the aged stadium into a new spring training facility for the Rays.
Published Mar. 6, 2016

PORT CHARLOTTE — Melanie Lenz has spent a decade of her life searching for a new home for the Tampa Bay Rays, dreaming of building a ballpark so iconic that fans would crave a memento.

"It's that postcard shot," Lenz, 42, says. "Something that you stop and buy at the airport to take back home."

Pressed for details, Lenz, the Rays senior vice president for strategy and development, mentions infusing Tampa Bay's water and abundant sunshine into the bones of a new stadium, but she's mum on specifics: capacity, upper decks or retractable roofs.

That's because Lenz is now at the center of Tampa Bay's preeminent political drama: It's St. Petersburg versus Tampa. Kriseman versus Buckhorn. And, for all the talk about regionalism, neither city wants to lose the chance to refer to itself as major league.

So words matter. As does the ability to build trust without showing your hand.

And if the front office gods had been asked to create an executive who radiates salt-of-the-earth genuineness and small-town Pennsylvania charm, someone who can somehow balance the brewing battle of the bay — they would have created Lenz.

"She never swears. She says, 'Honest to Pete' and 'Aww, Sugar.' It's endearing, and we like to tease her about it," said Bill Walsh, the Rays vice president of strategy and development, who has worked for Lenz since she hired him as a project manager at the New York City Economic Development Corporation in 2002.

But don't mistake Lenz's softness, team president Brian Auld said.

"You don't want to cross her," he said. "She's going to give you the benefit of the doubt. But it's your responsibility to come through or you'll hear about it."

Lenz's mix of toughness and likability has aided her rise to the top of a male-dominated industry that is quickly changing. The latest Major League Baseball data shows 65 women hold vice president positions around the league (as a senior vice president, Lenz is one level higher). Twenty-four of 30 teams had a female vice president in 2014.

The league has worked hard to recruit talented women, said Wendy Lewis, the league's senior vice president of diversity and alliances. And Lenz illustrates how a different perspective can enhance the ballpark experience, she said.

"Women tend to be inclusive in their thinking. They think of the fan experience from the youngest to the oldest fan," Lewis said.

She has worked hard to get where she is, Lenz says, and she appreciates being part of an organization that recognizes that work. But she doesn't dwell on it — at least not publicly.

"That's just the way the world is moving," Lenz said.

Lenz doesn't fully realize the extent to which she is a role model within the organization and in Tampa Bay, Auld said.

"She does stand for something. The hardest part for her is recognizing that. She doesn't always understand what all the fuss is about. Understanding her importance as a role model is something she's just starting to come to grips with," Auld said.

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Lenz's own relationship to baseball began in tiny Grampian, Pa. (pop. 350), smack dab in the middle of the state, where she was the oldest of three children of P.D. and Barb Beish.

P.D. Beish, a home builder, was a shortstop good enough to try out for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He and his eldest daughter formed a tight bond over building and baseball.

When she was little, they built furniture for her dolls and stuffed animals in the basement. P.D. threw her grounders on the road in front of their house. She ended up being one of the first girls to ever play in the local Little League, eventually playing for the Moose Lodge Moose (not "super" having Moose emblazoned across her 11-year-old chest, Lenz says).

One game, an errant fastball hit her in the chest hard enough to leave seam marks. As she lay crumpled at home plate, her worried mother rushed on to the field.

Barb Beish said the little shortstop was not happy to see her.

"Get off the field, mother," her fifth-grader said.

While an undergraduate at Duquesne University, she met her future husband, Kurt. He got a law degree at Duquesne while she obtained a master's degree in urban planning at the University of Pittsburgh.

Then New York called. She was hired at the Economic Development Commission and began work in the real estate division, trying to find new uses for unused city buildings. Most of her work was in Queens, where she worked with Seth Bornstein, executive director of the Queens EDC.

Most of the young EDC planners from Manhattan were Harvard or Yale types, working for the city for a few years before snagging a job at an investment bank. Lenz was different, Bornstein said.

She impressed him with her interest in Queens and her attention to detail. And he soon realized the "little blonde girl from Pittsburgh" wasn't cowed by borough presidents, junkyard owners or anyone else.

"They thought they would squash her. It wasn't the case. It was fun to watch," Bornstein said. "If she had stayed, she would have been the president of the EDC."

But Tampa Bay beckoned. Michael Kalt, the former Rays executive, had gotten to know Lenz when he worked for Mayor Michael Bloomberg. When he was hired by the team, he immediately began to lobby her to join him.

In 2006, Lenz agreed. Her first assignment? To rehab an aging spring training facility in Port Charlotte for the Rays.

As project manager, Lenz delivered a beauty of a park for $27 million, about a third of what it cost the Red Sox to build Jet Blue Park in Fort Myers.

"Value against dollars spent, I don't think there is a spring training facility that comes close to Port Charlotte," Kalt said. "That's largely a testament to Mel."

As she walked the concourse at the Rays first spring training game this week, Lenz reflected the prospect of building a stadium that her sons — Will, 5, and Ben, almost 3, will take their own children to some day.

"It gives me goose bumps," she said.

At the same time that Port Charlotte was coming together, a plan to build a new stadium on St. Petersburg's waterfront was falling apart. The team dropped the idea in 2008 in the face of tepid support from City Hall and opposition from many residents.

For Lenz, it was a disappointing learning experience, a to-do list of how to get things right the next time. High on that list is transparency, communication and making sure everyone is on the same page.

She's optimistic that the second try will work. She'll build her iconic stadium and the postcards will be printed.

But, this being baseball in Tampa Bay, what if it all crumbles? And a decade of her life ends up as a quixotic quest to build the stadium that wasn't to be.

"Will I be crushed if it turns out that I can't do something like this on a major-league scale? For sure," she said in Port Charlotte. "But I firmly believe where we end up is where we're supposed to end up."

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

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