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  1. Opinion

Joe Henderson: Mayor Castor has a big-picture view of Rays stadium issue

People in the stands during the sixth inning of the Tampa Bay Rays game against the Kansas City Royals at Tropicana Field in April. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]
People in the stands during the sixth inning of the Tampa Bay Rays game against the Kansas City Royals at Tropicana Field in April. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published May 9, 2019

The success the Tampa Bay Rays enjoy on the field doesn't translate at the box office. That's not exactly stop-the-presses news. As we know — and man, do we know — the Rays are in their normal spot at the bottom of the American League in attendance.

Fewer than 9,000 people showed up at Tropicana Field on Monday night to welcome the conquering heroes home from a lengthy road trip.

Tampa's new mayor, Jane Castor, recently told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board she believes the Rays belong in Tampa. Oh, where have we heard that before?

In that same meeting, Castor noted, "I think we have several locations in Tampa that will be viable."

She is correct, of course, although her comments provoked a backlash from St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman. Times sports columnist John Romano followed with an excellent analysis last Sunday of the team's attendance predicament.

So, the never-ending story continues, right?

Maybe not. It turns out Tampa's new mayor has a big-picture view of this issue, starting when I asked her to expand on those "several locations" where a stadium could be built.

"I don't have a list of spots," she said. "My position is that we're too big of an area to lose a professional sports team. I believe there are spots throughout the area that would work. If it turns out to be in Pinellas County, that's fine.

"We want the team to stay in the area, and I believe that's what the Rays want too."

So, I asked her, what about a summit conference?

Get the Rays, Kriseman, Castor, other business and political leaders in one room, around a table and lock the door. Lay the issues out. That should only take a couple of minutes because we've discussed them ad nauseam over the years.

It would stop this tick-tock of talks where the Rays meet with St. Petersburg, then with Hillsborough, then with St. Petersburg, and so on. That has gotten the area and the team nowhere. If the Rays are serious about staying, stop playing both sides of the bay against each other and get this done.

"I'm for any conversation about this issue," Castor said. "I would like to approach it from a collaborative angle."

In my opinion, the only way to solve this is by accepting some hard truths and moving on from there. The first of those is that building a stadium on or near the current Tropicana Field site would be a colossal waste of time and money.

People don't stay away from the Trop because they don't like the ballpark. They stay away because of where the ballpark is built.

Castor, by the way, was an athlete at Chamberlain High School and the University of Tampa and lives a stone's throw from Seminole Heights. I asked if she attends many Rays games.

"No," she said. "It's too far. I enjoy it when I go there, but it's a long drive."

Planners and consultants long ago determined that the Rays' best chance for long-term success at the gate is to build a new stadium in the middle of the market. The Rays have said they wholeheartedly agree.

The Rays are a great story on the field. They give off that certain vibe that elite ballclubs share.

It's a look that says they know how good they are.

It's not like sports fans in the area don't like baseball. And they certainly like the product the inventive and aggressive Rays' management produced. But over the years they have gotten used to watching the games on TV and limiting trips to the Trop to a few times a year.

That's not going to change until the stadium location does. There has to be a middle ground on this.

So get around a table and work this out.

That's what Castor is really saying.

Contact Joe Henderson at joehtampa@gmail.com

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