The Tampa Bay region was zero for 7 in its chase for a Major League Baseball team before the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays began playing in 1998.
Count them. There were failed efforts to relocate the Minnesota Twins, Oakland Athletics, Texas Rangers, Chicago White Sox, Seattle Mariners and San Francisco Giants, and then a presumed National League expansion team that went elsewhere. This was baseball in Tampa and St. Petersburg in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Now WEDU PBS has created an hour-long documentary, Rise of the Rays. A Devil of a Story, that debuts at 9 p.m. Thursday, It retells the frustrations of would-be owner Frank Morsani and the late Rick Dodge, the assistant city manager who was St. Petersburg’s point man on the quest.
“The most powerful assistant city manager in the history of the United States,’ former Tampa Tribune columnist Joe Henderson deadpans to the camera while describing Dodge.
There also is no shortage of the descriptions of the duplicitous behavior in the way Major League Baseball did business.
“Honorable people were not involved,” says Morsani, a successful Tampa auto dealer and philanthropist who now resides in Brooksville with his wife, Carol.
The idea for the documentary came from WEDU CEO Paul Grove, who had a long friendship with Dodge and initially created a short tribute film after his death in 2020. Grove decided to expand it to memorialize the passion and relentlessness of Dodge and Morsani.
“No one had told the story. Here it’s been 30 years and there’s probably a whole generation that did not experience those seven failures of trying to bring baseball to the community,” Grove said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times.
Retired sports broadcast journalist Tom Korun serves as host and those interviewed include past television sports anchors Dave Wirth and Al Keck. Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times also shares memories as do former Mayor Bob Ulrich and Jack Critchfield, retired chairman of what was then called Florida Progress Corp.
Ulrich tells of the political consequences of St. Petersburg’s decision to construct the domed stadium without a tenant and Critchfield recounts meeting Stephen Porter, the leader of an ownership group that bypassed Morsani and became Major League Baseball’s choice to seek the expansion franchise.
“I knew we had a phony right from the start,” Critchfield said.
The documentary ends with opening day 1998, the first regular season game the then-Devil Rays played in Tropicana Field. It came three years after the late Vincent Naimoli emerged from obscurity to lead the ownership group that eventually won the expansion franchise after the purchase of the San Francisco Giants was torpedoed.
Ending the story 25 years ago means there is no mention of the early misplays on the field and in the front office or how the community soured on Naimoli’s ownership and the now ongoing effort to redevelop the historic Gas Plant District that was bulldozed for the stadium construction.
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Grove acknowledged he had early hopes of a half-dozen 30-minute episodes that viewers could binge watch but settled for the one-hour documentary that he hopes brings a new audience to WEDU and to PBS..
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