Not surprisingly, the majority of questions thrown at Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg in Tueday’s press conference focused on the new.
How could two cities, over a thousand miles apart, share one team? Which city would host playoff games?
Was this the beginning of the end of Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay?
While questions fixated on the new and unknown dominated the 45-minute news conference, a touch of old entered in its next-to-last question directed to Sternberg:
“Is there a possibility of bringing spring training back to Tampa Bay?”
After clarifying the Rays’ current spring training agreement with Port Charlotte (where the team’s lease runs through 2028), Sternberg responded with a smile, “It’s on the table. It’s absolutely on the table."
Sternberg went on to say there’d potentially be Rays’ baseball in Tampa Bay from February through June if his plan to split Tampa Bay’s season with Montreal went through — a potential compromise for the area who wouldn’t have the Rays for the regular season’s entirety.
He then mentioned the Rays potential new (but, not really new) spring training home: Al Lang Stadium, which, the Rays control after purchasing the Tampa Bay Rowdies and the stadium rights in October.
It’s been a long time since baseball fans flocked to Downtown St. Petersburg for spring training — but, decades ago, they used to come in droves.
Major League Baseball once called St. Petersburg one of its spring training homes for the greater part of 94 years, with the city hosting nine different teams and some of the game’s biggest names year after year.
While baseball spread throughout the United States in the 20th century, St. Petersburg was at first able to attract teams to the city in large part thanks to one man: Al Lang.
Using incentives packages that covered teams’ travel expenses and other amenities, Lang first drew the St. Louis Browns to Pinellas County in 1914. The Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies quickly followed, with all three teams training in St. Petersburg by the time Lang was elected mayor of the city in 1916.
“Before Al Lang came along, St. Petersburg was viewed by baseball as little more than blip on the map,” wrote author and baseball historian Wes Singletary. “He changed all that.”
With St. Petersburg as one of the spring training hubs of the time, thanks to Al Lang himself, a stadium was constructed in his honor — costing $300,000 — and opened to replace Waterfront Park in 1947.
Al Lang Stadium’s first tenants were the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals, which shared the venue in its inaugural spring training — and played each other in its first-ever game, with the Cardinals winning 10-5. Al Lang Stadium would then go on to host plenty of baseball’s most famous players over the years, including Stan Musial and Mickey Mantle, as seen below.
As years passed, the stadium kept up with the times. It would undergo a major reconstruction in 1976 that expanded its capacity to 7,227, and another in 1999 that added two new grand staircases, a second berm, extra toilets, concession stands and air conditioning in the press box.
While sharing the stadium with countless other teams, the Cardinals played its spring training games there every season from 1947 until 1997, when the newly-created Tampa Bay Devil Rays took over as the sole tenants of the stadium.
After the Devil Rays came in, sponsorships would lead Al Lang Stadium to be known as Florida Power Park from 1997-2003, and then as Progress Energy Park from 2003-2011 before returning to its original name.
Despite the game’s history in the city, spring training in St. Petersburg appeared to be all but dead after the Rays departure.
After 10 seasons of hosting spring training just a mile from its regular season home at Tropicana Field, the newly-named Tampa Bay Rays announced it, too, would play its Grapefruit League games south of its regular season home, leaving St. Petersburg without a spring training team.
After March 2008, the Rays were to abandon Al Lang in favor of a complex in Port Charlotte that had just underwent a $27 million renovation.
At the time, the Rays’ new home called out with fresh facilities that made training for two months more enjoyable for players. Its current was beginning to wither after years of baking under the St. Petersburg sun and flooding from its rain.
But for every facility upgrade Charlotte’s Sports Park provided over Al Lang, the St. Petersburg stadium had it beat in history and charm.
Former-Rays manager Joe Maddon agreed at the time, telling the Tampa Bay Times before the final game at Al Lang in 2008, “In this country, we give up on things too soon.”
Regardless of sentiment, however, the Rays were gone after the spring of 2008 and, for the first time since it opened, Al Lang Stadium was without a professional sports team as a tenant.
It would sit another three years before a new team — and sport — moved in after FC Tampa Bay (now known as Tampa Bay Rowdies) announced plans to begin play in 2011. Along with the move came minor renovations to convert Al Lang Stadium into a soccer facility, with temporary seats added on the grass along the sidelines to increase capacity.
The Rowdies have played at the stadium ever since — with the stadium only hosting amateur baseball games on occasion.
Will spring training ever come back to the city and stadium that embraced it for decades? Only time can tell.
And maybe Stuart Sternberg.