On Opening Day, the grass is real and the roof is open. The colors are bright, the stars are out and the skyline glimmers beyond the outfield fence. The ESPN announcers gush, the baseball commissioner smiles and a new era begins for a Major League Baseball franchise in Florida.
Too bad it is for the Miami Marlins, not the Tampa Bay Rays. Miami on Wednesday night opened Marlins Park, a gorgeous $642 million work of art that reflects the city's urban chic with its fish tanks, nightclub and colorful 70-foot sculpture beyond centerfield. For Tampa Bay, such a step into the 21st century remains a dream as the Rays open their season this afternoon in outdated Tropicana Field.
This is not a pitch to copy Miami in every respect. The stadium is not in an ideal location, west of downtown on land where the Orange Bowl stood for decades. There are cost overruns, nagging concerns about traffic and parking issues. But the experience there can be instructive for Tampa Bay with stadium discussions stalled by St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster's petty parochialism and lack of vision.
First, it's important to get the location and stadium architecture right. Miami did better with the latter than the former, and that situation illustrates why the Rays reasonably want to study stadium sites in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. The longer Foster refuses to allow that flexibility and hides behind the long-term lease, the less negotiating power St. Petersburg has as years tick off the lease and it becomes less expensive for the Rays to buy their way out and move wherever they want.
Second, new stadiums draw more fans and generate more revenue that can be reinvested in the team. The Marlins expect crowds to shoot up this year after being last in the National League for seven years, and the team payroll has bumped up to more than $112 million. The Rays have increased their payroll to about $65 million, but team owner Stuart Sternberg says that is not sustainable. Ultimately, the long-term health of the franchise and its future in Tampa Bay hinges on a new stadium.
Third, in Miami it took years of discussions, negotiations and false starts to agree on a stadium deal, followed by another two years for construction. Yet serious discussions have yet to start for a new Rays stadium because of Foster's intransigence. The Pinellas and Hillsborough county commissions have good reason to seek legal advice on breaking the silence, and the chambers of commerce task force on baseball stadium financing will be helpful when it releases its report later this year. At this rate, it's difficult to imagine what year the Rays would open the season in a modern stadium, regardless of where it is built.
Miami has its field of dreams. Tampa Bay is still just dreaming.