Henry's Chopping Block

August 22, 2009 12:14 PM

Rays, Tropicana Field a Good Fit

With a major-league best home record of 98-44 (through Friday night) since the start of the 2008 season, the last thing the Tampa Bay Rays should be thinking about is leaving Tropicana Field.
Yet on the eve of an important home series against Texas, a consulting group called "A Baseball Community" -- ABC -- decided it's as good a time as any to beat the drum for a new stadium elsewhere in the Tampa Bay area.
Part of ABC's mission statement, according to its Web site, is "the identification and assessment of possible new stadium locations. ... leading to a recommendation for city, county, Rays and general community consideration."
Notice who's last in the pecking order.
ABC is chaired by Jeff Lyash, the president and CEO of Progress Energy Florida.
Wasn't is just last fall the Rays quietly dropped plans for a $450-million, retractable-roof stadium near the St. Petersburg waterfront, at the site of old Al Lang Field? I imagine it probably had something to do with the recession and the fact public tax dollars were being sought to finance the project.
Everyone realized it was a no-go.
Now, in the midst of a pennant race, Rays fans must stomach another reminder how inadequate their south St. Petersburg home is, even though opponents hate coming there because of its quirky hitting background.
Tropicana Field's No. 1 drawback: Corporate profits are not being maximized.
Sure, it's alarming that games have regularly drawn in the 15,000-20,000 range for the defending American League champs. And you have to smirk when Red Sox fans out-number Rays backers on a regular basis.
And it makes sense baseball fans in north St. Petersburg and Tampa would rather see a stadium closer to home. Although Ferg's sports bar offers a pleasant gathering spot before and after games, the Trop sits in a long-neglected area of Pinellas County. No dawdling allowed on the walk back to the car.
But there is nothing wrong with Tropicana Field, even if no one knows the rules for balls hit off the catwalks. Heck, it's home to the Ted Williams Museum.
ABC, and Rays owner Stuart Sternberg and his management team, have a lot further to go explaining how a new stadium will benefit the area -- not just the team -- to gain public support.
Or maybe they need to realize this is not the best time to decide how to raise citizen taxes.
Florida has lost population for the first time since 1946, unemployment in the state is approaching record levels and voters don't have the stomach for financing millionaires.
Of course, common sense tells me Rays management and ABC will find a way. That's why professional sports exist, to get into our pockets and convince us we're part of their success and they're just as loyal as we are.
It just seems so unncessary, a waste of taxpayer dollars, when a perfectly good stadium already is in place.
One where the home team has a .697 winning percentage since last April.

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