Updated 11 months ago
This ought to be a great time for baseball in Florida.
On both coasts, there’s boys-of-summer magic in the air. Over on the gulf, in its 10th year of existence and third year under new management, the Tampa Bay baseball franchise is — finally — winning. Lacking superstar lunkers who can clout bucketsful of home runs, the Rays are playing a kind of exhilarating, Jack-in-the-Box baseball in which one or another player pops up to do something opportunistic at just the right time. The players are likable, fundamentally sound and fun to watch. As of this writing, the Rays were fencing with the team from Boston for the lead in the American League East.
Meanwhile, on the Atlantic side of the state, the Marlins likewise have defied expectations by settling into neck-and-neck contention with the Phillies atop the National League East. The Marlins, who seem to operate in binge-and-purge cycles when it comes to their on-field personnel, have put together a solid, exciting combination of pitching, a sprinkling of veterans and young hitting talent, including infield stars Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla (if you’re curious, the name, typically associated with Swedish noble families, means “owl’’).
But even as the Rays and Marlins demonstrate the ability of so-called “small market” organizations to field contending teams, their relationships with their respective communities remain somewhat hit-and-miss affairs.
The Marlins, for their part, finally are getting a new stadium, a half-billion-dollar, mostly taxpayer-funded, retractable-roof ball yard (along with a $94-million parking garage) that the team says will cement it in south Florida when the field is finished in 2011. As a sign of its commitment to the area, the Florida Marlins are becoming the “Miami Marlins” and have signed Ramirez to a six-year, $70-million contract.
But the stadium deal came only after five nasty years that featured public name-calling, threats by the team to move, back-and-forths involving several other proposed locations and no shortage of ill will between owner Jeffrey Loria and some members of the community. To get approved, the stadium had to be sandwiched in with a funding package that includes a tunnel and a redevelopment plan for the area around the stadium. The deal doesn’t seem to have left a good taste in anyone’s mouth. There’s even a possible roadblock remaining, a lawsuit by car dealer Norman Braman, the contentious former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles. He claims the deal is an unconstitutional use of public money for a private purpose. The case is to go to trial this month.
Meanwhile, the Marlins, despite their on-field success, aren’t drawing particularly well. At the least, the new stadium should leave them with no alibis for what’s been a conspicuous lack of support from the community: Since 1999, the Marlins have never ranked higher than 14th of 16 teams in their league in attendance, despite winning their second World Series in 2003.
As for the Rays, the new ownership has made huge strides in overcoming the poisoned well of a franchise left by previous management, which put crummy teams on the field and alienated both fans and just about every segment of the area’s business community with ham-fisted commercial practices.
The savvy and smarts that Stuart Sternberg’s ownership group has shown in building the team and improving operations at Tropicana Field seem to have deserted it, however, as it has gone about seeking its own new stadium. Commendably, Sternberg hasn’t just sought a new building: The waterfront ballpark the team wants — and the associated redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site — is a visionary attempt to build on the rejuvenation of downtown St. Petersburg and knit the Rays into the city’s fabric in the same way as long-established teams in much older cities.
But as the plan has emerged, Rays executives have kicked it around like a bad-hop grounder. Whatever the truth, they ended up looking like they colluded in secret with city officials while forgetting to even talk to anyone at the county, whose involvement in creating a new stadium will be just as important.
Then there are the various holes and questions regarding other parts of the proposed deal. Not the least is the stadium itself, a striking, ultra-modern design on the bay with a sail shielding the field and spectators. The design may be magnificent, but many locals roll their eyes at the idea of outdoor baseball in St. Pete’s humidity in July and August. I’m as much a believer as Sternberg that baseball should be played on organic rather than plastic grass, but he is welcome to enjoy a beer with me on my back porch a few nights this summer before completely abandoning the idea of a retractable roof.
Then there’s the matter of parking downtown and some squishy numbers involving how much the city will realize from a sale and redevelopment of the site where the Rays now play. Voters may get to weigh in on the Rays’ plan in a referendum this fall. Meanwhile, the Rays bottom-dwelling attendance seems to be perking up after the recent spate of victories, although not as quickly as some in the media — and probably the team — think it should.
As they try to move forward, the Rays and Marlins face broader issues. Professional sports teams in Florida have
always faced divided allegiances in markets where most of their real and potential supporters still think of themselves
at some level as Yankees/Cubs/Indians/Red Sox fans. In Florida, the location of home plate is not quite fixed.
Perhaps most sadly, the persistent ambivalence between the Rays and the Marlins and their respective communities also testifies to the diminished stature of the game of baseball itself in America. Once upon a time, communities like Miami and St. Petersburg would have fallen all over themselves building facilities for the local hardball team. Contrast Sternberg’s relatively thoughtful approach to getting a new facility to that of the owners of the Tampa Bay Bucs football team a few years ago, who were shameless in threatening to move the team if taxpayers didn’t pony up millions for a new stadium. In a testament to the popularity of football — a game, it is said, of violence punctuated by committee meetings — the voters coughed up tax dollars with barely a peep.
Time may smooth the base paths for the two teams. But as they rack up wins this summer, the Marlins and the Rays may also be testing the proposition that winning solves everything.
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