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St. Petersburg Rays? Rick Baker pitching City Council on name change

Baker has met with council members to make a name change part of the Tampa Bay Rays stadium deal.
 
Rick Baker, right, served as mayor of St. Petersburg from 2001 to 2010, during which time the Tampa Bay Rays pursued a waterfront ballpark on the Al Lang Stadium site.
Rick Baker, right, served as mayor of St. Petersburg from 2001 to 2010, during which time the Tampa Bay Rays pursued a waterfront ballpark on the Al Lang Stadium site. [ CHRIS ZUPPA | St. Petersburg Times ]
Published Nov. 30, 2023|Updated Dec. 1, 2023

Former Mayor Rick Baker has met individually with City Council members to float the idea of requiring that the Tampa Bay Rays change their name to the St. Petersburg Rays as part of the stadium and redevelopment deal partly funded by city and county public dollars.

It is not clear yet if council members will take any action, but at least one council member wants to have a public discussion as city officials start hiring more lawyers and consultants to put final documents together for official approval.

City Council member Gina Driscoll called it an interesting idea with precedent: The Miami Marlins were known as the Florida Marlins until 2012, as part of the deal Miami-Dade County brokered to finance the team’s new stadium.

“I’m still interested in what the public thinks and what my colleagues think about it,” she said. “I think I’m going to bring it forward for discussion for the sake of talking about it and getting our thoughts out there in public.”

“The challenge that I have is this is kind of coming up in the ninth inning,” Driscoll continued. “That presents some challenges, and I wish those had come up even a year ago.”

Baker’s meetings with council members came after the Tampa Bay Times published a column he wrote proposing the name change on Nov. 15. He served as mayor from 2001 to 2010, during which time the Rays pursued a waterfront ballpark on the Al Lang Stadium site. He pushed then for the team to change its name, but the Rays withdrew the proposal amid public pushback.

When asked by a Times reporter on Sunday if the name change would justify the deal on the table, Baker said he didn’t want to get into the cost.

The deal calls for half of the $1.3 billion stadium to be subsidized with public dollars split between the city and county, with the rest paid by the Rays. The city would pay another $130 million for infrastructure for the rest of the Historic Gas Plant District surrounding the stadium, plus selling that land to the Rays at a discount. Based on city projections, the city and county contributions alone could hit a combined $1.29 billion over time with interest.

“I think without it, it’s not worth the cost,” Baker said.

City Council member Ed Montanari, whom Baker endorsed in his current campaign for Florida House District 60, said he met with Baker on Tuesday. He said he is considering the idea and whether it is something the city can demand.

“He met with me and my understanding is he’s meeting with other council members,” Montanari said. “He makes some good points.”

Council member Lisset Hanewicz, a skeptic of the stadium proposal, also said she met with Baker.

“I think anything that they provide that would justify the amount of money that city taxpayers are paying is a good thing,” she said. “I think the majority of citizens in St. Petersburg would like it to be called St. Petersburg Rays.”

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Council member Richie Floyd, also a critic of the deal, said Baker texted him about the issue but hasn’t spoken to him about it “in depth.”

“I’ve got a whole list of things that I want to see come out of this. That was not at the top of it at all,” Floyd said.

Council member Copley Gerdes, a supporter of the Rays and the team as an anchor tenant on the development, said he has a meeting with Baker scheduled for Tuesday morning.

“I’ll hear him out,” Gerdes said.

Rays spokesperson Rafaela Amador did not immediately return requests for comment.

Baker did not immediately return requests for comment. He was a guest Sunday on the Ray Tampa podcast, a weekly political program aired on the radio and YouTube hosted by Tampa, a former educator and past president of the NAACP St. Petersburg branch.

Baker said he had raised the issue 30 years ago in a column and has “talked to everyone I know about this for a long, long time.” Asked whether he knew what City Council members were thinking about a name change possibility, he said, “I’m sure they’re thinking about it.”

“I’m just saying I don’t want to run a campaign,” Baker said on the podcast. “It’s up to the community to decide whether this is something that they want or not.”

A spokesperson for Mayor Ken Welch did not provide comment.

Pinellas County commissioners will vote on the deal, too, as their contribution to the stadium would come to $312.5 million.

County Commissioner Dave Eggers said he hadn’t been pitched by Baker, but had read his column. Eggers said he was intrigued by the proposal.

Eggers is a vocal advocate of regional thinking — he’s among those who pushed for rare recent meetings where commissions from Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco met to discuss common issues — and he sees the team as a regional asset, he said.

But changing the name would also bring the Rays in line with most other American pro sports teams, which are typically named for cities, and would reflect the growth of the team’s hometown.

”St. Pete is coming into its own, clearly, over the last decade especially,” he said.

In the team’s early years, Pinellas County Commissioner Rene Flowers was no fan of the team’s name — neither the “hideous” appearance of the “Devil” in its mascot name that was removed as part of extensive rebranding going into the 2008 season, nor its regional geographic designation.

”We’re not Tampa Bay,” said Flowers, a St. Petersburg resident, summarizing her stance at the time. “We’re St. Pete. Tampa Bay is a body of water.”

Flowers has come around on the name. She also likes the regionally minded approach some local governments have embraced in recent years.

Commissioner Janet Long said Baker sent her a link to his column, but she never responded. She’s not a fan of the idea, either.

”I would not be in favor of changing the name to the St. Pete Baseball Team, unless they don’t want the money from the county,” she said.

Times staff writers Jack Evans and Marc Topkin contributed to this report.