I will never forget the day it looked like Major League Baseball would be coming here. Once the news broke about a potential move of the San Francisco Giants to St. Petersburg, no one could talk about anything else.
If you lived in the area, you remember how exasperated people were with MLB. There were so many false starts and teases to get our own team, but the deal with the Giants looked real. There was a signed contract to sell the club to Vince Naimoli and his Tampa Bay investment group.
My phone rang constantly that day with people wanting information. I saw “Tampa Bay Giants” signs suddenly materialize. I even remember the honking of car horns in celebration. The Giants never moved here, of course, but baseball owners were finally convinced to award an expansion team that is now known as the Tampa Bay Rays.
I bring this up because there was a time when passion for baseball here was real, but we also know the problems now.
The Rays’ new season begins Tuesday at Tropicana Field, amid much optimism about the team. Sports Illustrated picks the Rays to win the American League pennant, and even if that doesn’t happen it’s almost certain they will be among the top contenders again.
However, they also will almost certainly be near or at the bottom in attendance again. There might even be lower crowds than normal this season, if that’s possible.
Construction on Interstate 275 has turned the stretch between downtown Tampa and the Howard Frankland Bridge into a parking lot at just about any hour of the day. No one will be surprised if fans just decide it’s not worth the trouble to battle their way through the mess to downtown St. Petersburg. That construction won’t be finished for at least three more years.
I have said before and will repeat: Buying tickets is a voluntary activity, and you don’t owe this team a nickel of your money. The Rays arguably are the best organization in professional sports (not just baseball), but that doesn’t mean you or anyone else has to pay to watch them play.
According to Forbes magazine, the Rays are the least-valuable MLB team. Despite that, I don’t believe they’re losing money.
But it’s also true that they receive an estimated $40 million or so from baseball’s revenue-sharing program. Other owners are tired of helping pick up the tab to prop up a team that beats them. They want the Rays standing on their own feet, and that means the Trop should be bulldozed. But we know how that debate has gone, don’t we?
Earlier this week, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn told the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce he believes the Rays will leave St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster has vowed to fight that to the last legal brief.
This season could be something special for the Rays. It could be what everyone dreamed about more than 20 years ago when it looked like we had a team. It doesn’t seem like that just now, though. We seem to be stuck with a story that needs to change, but never does.