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Tampa Bay Rays want smaller year-round stadium — without upper deck

Tampa Bay Rays executive Melanie Lenz, right, with her son Ben before the start of the exhibition opener in March. Lenz envisions a next generation ballpark that is more conducive to casual fans. "Seating that works for the traditional baseball consumer might not work for the family of four or the millennial," Lenz said. [WILL VRAGOVIC | Times]
Published Jun. 7, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — As the search for a new Tampa Bay Rays ballpark enters its sixth month, both sides are refining their deliveries.

The Rays are tweaking a pitch to corporate and civic groups, asking them for ideas for a next-generation ballpark that will lure casual fans and satisfy hard-core aficionados.

Rays executives want a stadium without the shrine mystique of many baseball parks. Instead, they're exploring ways to draw casual or nonbaseball fans to the park and make money off them all year long — not just 81 days a year.

Some ideas? Cooking classes in the concession kitchens. Opening up parts of the clubhouse and training areas to the public, perhaps a workout area with players and weekend warriors separated by glass.

Part sales pitch and brainstorming session, a presentation Friday to the Tampa Bay Times, led by team executives Melanie Lenz and Bill Walsh, reveals some familiar ideas — a stadium that might have removable walls, maybe an aquarium or water slide, more local food and a high-tech roof.

But some surprises emerged.

• Despite owner Stu Sternberg's oft-stated desire for natural grass, the team is investigating new types of turf that may treat players' knees better than grass. The turf could also hold up better if the stadium is open to the public in the offseason or when the team is on the road.

• Team officials are considering a new kind of ticket that allows the fan to roam. An inning or two behind home plate could be followed by another couple of innings hanging out in a bar area or a section along rightfield.

"Seating that works for the traditional baseball consumer might not work for the family of four or the millennial," Lenz said. "So how do we design seating spaces, gathering spaces and social spaces that work for all of those different fans in a way that is cohesive and makes sense?"

• Maybe there won't be an upper deck. "The ability to have a ballpark that is the most intimate in all of Major League Baseball could mean that it doesn't have an upper deck, and people are very interested in that," said Lenz, saying that doesn't mean cheaper tickets will disappear.

"It's got to cover the fan on a budget to the fan where this is their premium experience," she said. "We cannot price out the next generation of fans. We can't."

Some of the slides accompanying the presentation pictured European soccer stadiums. Team officials also readily admit they seek to tap into Major League Soccer's success in cultivating younger fans.

The team will debut a website for fans to offer their own ideas in the coming weeks.

While the Rays hone their pitch, the Baseball Forever campaign — a committee of about three dozen civic, business and public officials charged with generating public support to keep the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg, or at least Pinellas County — met behind closed doors last week.

A Tampa Bay Times reporter was denied access to Friday's meeting, which was billed as an update on strategies to engage community leaders, because city officials maintained it didn't have to be public.

Mayor Rick Kriseman and St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Chris Steinocher picked the campaign's members, which include St. Petersburg City Council member Ed Montanari and Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch. But, since the three elected officials represent three different political bodies — the mayor's office, the City Council and the County Commission — it wasn't a public meeting, city officials said.

Case law is undecided on that point, said Times attorney Alison Steele. The fact that the topic is of such public interest, but the proceedings take place in secret, is "troubling," she said.

"It's not like it's a meeting of the mayor's garden club," she said.

Kriseman spokesman Ben Kirby pointed to the Hillsborough group as also having nonpublic meetings. That group has only two elected officials. It is identifying and selecting potential stadium sites and might negotiate with land owners.

Baseball Forever, at least for now, is adamant that the Trop is the best place for the Rays.

"We are focusing on the Trop because that's the one site we own," Kriseman said. "If there are other sites in Pinellas, and there may be, we'll need to talk to the local owners about them."

Team president Brian Auld said after the meeting Friday that he was impressed by Baseball Forever's energy. The Rays don't believe they will miss any opportunity on either side of the bay, he said.

What about Kriseman concentrating Baseball Forever's campaign on marketing the Trop as the best site for a new ballpark?

"Each county has been going about the process in a way that they feel is best for them," Auld said.

Rick Mussett, Baseball Forever's coordinator, said the public will have plenty of opportunities to access information vetted by the group. He delivered the agenda and reports discussed at the meeting to the Times after the meeting ended.

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

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