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Edwards to city: Fix Al Lang field or the Rowdies may have to move

Published May 10, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — Either baseball leaves Al Lang Stadium or the Tampa Bay Rowdies may leave St. Petersburg.

These are the choices the city must weigh, according to Bill Edwards, Rowdies majority owner.

"I'm not threatening to leave. I'm asking to stay," Edwards said Friday. "I'm fighting to stay in St. Pete."

Because the field doubles as a baseball diamond, it isn't level and is the worst in the North American Soccer League, Edwards said. More injuries occur there than any other field, he said, adding that he has received complaints from the league.

Edwards is willing to spend $132,000 of his own money to level the field and bring it to better standards. But he won't do that unless he knows it will not be converted back to a baseball diamond when the soccer season ends. He also wants the city to invest in renovating the stadium.

"The locker room floods when it rains," he said. "We've notified the city. We just can't get no respect. I feel like Rodney Dangerfield."

In response to Edwards' comments, Mayor Rick Kriseman's office released a statement.

"It is unfortunate that Mr. Edwards would purchase the Rowdies only to threaten to move the team a few months later," spokesman Ben Kirby said. "Due diligence on his part certainly would have revealed the challenges of playing at an aging structure like Al Lang Stadium."

Representatives from the city, the Rowdies and the St. Petersburg Baseball Commission, which manages Al Lang Stadium, met last week on the field to discuss its condition. The amount of clay that has been added for the baseball infield then scraped away then added again over the years has caused a sloping that isn't good for soccer or baseball, said Joe Zeoli, managing director of city development administration.

A turf consultant is preparing suggestions and cost estimates of improvements that should be presented to City Council on June 5. Zeoli said leveling the field during the Rowdies' season break in June could be a possibility.

"If Mr. Edwards is going to stick to his statement that the only way he will fund that is if it is a soccer-only facility we may have look at alternative funding sources," Zeoli said. "Having baseball games at Al Lang is important to us."

While no Major League teams regularly train there anymore, numerous college, high school and international teams play at Al Lang.

The decision over the future of Al Lang Stadium is not completely under the city's control, Zeoli added, since the separate, nonprofit St. Petersburg Baseball Commission is contracted to manage Al Lang until 2016. It also has a contract to manage the Walter Fuller Complex on the city's west side until September.

In a recent letter, Edwards was critical of the commission and asked the city to put the contract for Walter Fuller out for competitive bids. Edwards said his team might be interested in bidding. The Baseball Commission has requested an extension on the Walter Fuller contract. The council is expected to make a decision on that at its June 5 meeting as well.

In a perfect world, Edwards said Friday he would love a new stadium.

"I'd love to build a stadium on the waterfront that could hold 18,000 people," he said. Though he has offered up millions of dollars for other private and public ventures, he's not offering to finance a new stadium, he said, suggesting bonds could finance something between $30 million and $60 million.

The Rowdies have a contract to play at Al Lang Stadium until 2016, but Edwards considers that contract already in breach because of the poor conditions. He said he's not sure what would happen if the situation isn't significantly improved and he doesn't settle on another location.

"I may not field a team next year if it came to that," Edwards said.

Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or kssmith@tampabay.com.

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