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St. Petersburg launches its campaign to keep Rays in city (w/video)

Rays fans, from left, Irene Pridgen, Julie Deschaine and Deb Michaelson dance to Summer Nights Saturday at Ferg’s during the kickoff to St. Petersburg’s official campaign to keep the Tampa Bay Rays in the city.
Published Feb. 28, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — A longtime senior city official who helped bring Major League Baseball to Tampa Bay has received a call from the bullpen to help save the future of the sport in the city.

Rick Mussett, 67, who retired in 2014 as city development administrator, was the primary liaison between the city and the Tampa Bay Rays.

On Saturday, city officials announced he'll be the point person in the city's "Baseball Forever" campaign to persuade its major-league team to remain on the western side of Tampa Bay.

The city has budgeted $50,000 for Mussett, as a part-time hire, to coordinate the effort, which will revolve around a master plan vision for a new stadium on the Tropicana Field site, surrounded by retail, nightlife, office buildings and housing on the 85-acre site. That plan will be ready by the end of September, city officials have said.

"No one knows the baseball business better than Rick in this area," said Kevin King, Mayor Rick Kriseman's chief of staff.

Mussett said he was happy to be back in the fight to keep baseball in the city.

"This will give me an opportunity to work with the community and build upon the effort I and many others put forth over the years to acquire and now retain a MLB franchise that was awarded to our region in 1995," Mussett said.

The hire was announced after a high-spirited rally at Ferg's, a sports bar that has become an iconic part of the Rays' short-lived history at the Trop. Kriseman and Chris Steinocher, president and CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, led the rally in front of a crowded bar of fans, many of whom had spent the afternoon at Rays Fan Fest across the street at the Trop.

Kriseman made an impassioned case for his city, saying that he and the City Council had made a "doggone good bet" that allowing the team to look outside the city for three years would pay off.

In the end, the mayor said, he believes the team will realize its best option is staying put.

"There is no better place to play in North America than downtown St. Petersburg," Kriseman said, perhaps using the continental reference as a nod to Montreal's aspirations to lure the team to Canada.

Steinocher said the chamber recognizes that keeping major-league baseball in St. Petersburg has an economic benefit — and an emotional one.

"I don't want to lose either of those, baby," Steinocher yelled to a cheering crowd, several of whom hoisted beers.

The city has a fight on its hands. Tampa and Hillsborough County officials have met with Rays executives — none of whom attended Saturday's rally at Ferg's — and that city has corporate clout and many sites that fit the Rays' desire to be near a business center.

But Tampa still has to assemble the land and cut a deal, King said.

"That's where we were decades ago," King said.

While the Trop is the centerpiece of the city's campaign, King said, Mussett's successor as city development administrator, Alan DeLisle, will be working with Pinellas County to market the Derby Lane site to the team if it's interested.

The brief rally at the height of happy hour also introduced a 27-member campaign committee, including the CEOs of several local companies, nonprofit chiefs and prominent fans.

Two City Council members attended: Charlie Gerdes and Jim Kennedy, both in their Rays attire after having attended Fan Fest.

Watching the festivities was Nelson Pedroza. The 39-year-old was fresh from Fan Fest with his children. The Philadelphia native has adopted the Rays as his American League team (the Phillies remain his National love) and has taught his sons to be Rays fans.

"I try to teach them you need to support what's local," said Pedroza, who works in the city's Water Resources Department.

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

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