Does St. Pete need the Rays? | Roy Peter Clark

The Tampa Bay Rays and the familiar dome of Tropicana Field are St. Petersburg fixtures, but have they become “wants” rather than “needs”? [Chris Urso | (2018) Times]
The Tampa Bay Rays and the familiar dome of Tropicana Field are St. Petersburg fixtures, but have they become “wants” rather than “needs”? [Chris Urso | (2018) Times]
Published July 12, 2019

This column is not about whether or not St. Pete should share the Tampa Bay Rays with the city of Montreal — "Les Rayons." It's not about whether St. Pete or Tampa should invest in a new stadium. It's not about how St. Petersburg's mayor and City Council should respond to uncertainty about the team's future.

I like the Rays, root for the Rays, attend my share of games, and have, at last count, 12 Tampa Bay Rays baseball caps. I live four miles from the Trop. I know where to park for $7. I like the comfort of a domed stadium when it is 98 degrees outside, with thunderstorms threatening, on a Sunday afternoon in July.

I hope something can be worked out that satisfies all interests. Do we want the Rays? I would vote yes. Do we need the Rays? I would say no.

That position should give us comfort. Few cities in the world, I would argue, have improved as dramatically as St. Petersburg over the last quarter century. We've changed for the better. In countless ways.

When we arrived in St. Petersburg in 1977, the city was a Johnny Carson joke. The world's largest open-air mausoleum. The city of the newly wed and nearly dead. "Sleep in the city that never wakes up" was one satiric slogan. The poor, the old, the homeless, the mentally ill, the drug-addicted walked the streets of St. Pete like something out of a George Romero zombie movie.

The glory days of the 1920s real estate boom had long passed the city by. Doc Webb's famous drugstore — farewell to dancing chickens and mermaids — was leveled. The Vinoy Hotel was in ruins, a home for vermin and vagrants.

To remember that vacant city and to see us now feels nothing short of a miracle. A true renaissance, beyond a rebirth.

Under the leadership of a series of good mayors, Robert Ulrich, David Fischer, and the two Ricks — Baker and Kriseman — St. Pete rose from the ashes. Getting a baseball team really helped. Tropicana Field and the Rays became one cornerstone of an urban revival.

What was once an old gas plant became a destination, and even though attendance remained low, a fan base grew along with television ratings. We beat the Red Sox to get into the World Series. Evan Longoria become more popular than Eva Longoria. More and more people — not just tourists or snowbirds — witnessed the rising. Even the clowns at ESPN had to deal with their constant mistake that the home of the Rays was St. Pete, not Tampa.

Here's the key to thinking about the future of baseball in St. Petersburg: The Rays did not cause the St. Pete revival, but they contributed to it. They were one star in a constellation: the restoration of the Vinoy; the growth of the innovation district and major medical facilities; the construction of high-rise apartments and condos; the creation of museum spaces, art districts and theater venues; the expansion of USF St. Pete and St. Pete College, including into Midtown; the Grand Prix; the emergence of Beach Drive as a magnet for hipsters, young and old; a restaurant boom with countless coffee shops and craft beer joints. The new pier will be a crown jewel.

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When you lose a corner stone, it's possible for the cathedral to stand if other strong stones are in place. And I think they are. You can also replace a missing stone. If the Rays leave — even if they move across the bay — I predict that whatever replaces Tropicana Field will be spectacular. I join those who hope that new development will bring jobs and other benefits to the area just south of the Trop, neighborhoods that were stiffed when the stadium was first built.

Even without the Rays, St. Pete will remain a baseball town forever. A time will come, I can see it now — the Rays may be in Las Vegas or San Antonio — but spring training will return to St. Pete, bringing back memories of Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial and Mickey Mantle.

Name a professional sports team in Florida that draws all the fans it wants no matter its level of success. The Lightning maybe? Not the Rays or Bucs or Marlins or Jaguars or even the Dolphins.

I want the Rays to stay. I want them to be successful. I want them to beat the Yankees, the Red Sox, and the stinkin' Phillies. But do we need them? No. And that says good things about the City of St. Pete, that never got to put its name on the team in the first place.

Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at the Poynter Institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times, since 1979.