Central stadium for Tampa Bay Rays key to their success
Fascinating proposals for new baseball stadiums have popped up recently, and more would appear if St. Petersburg would allow the Tampa Bay Rays to shop around. Many fans on the Tampa side of the bay are rooting for a location in or near downtown Tampa. But what Hillsborough County fans hope most of all is that the team will find a way to stay somewhere in the Tampa Bay area market. Because its attendance is the poorest in Major League Baseball, the Rays will not remain in Tropicana Field much longer, regardless of the lease with St. Petersburg. The team wants to explore other sites in Pinellas and Hillsborough, and St. Pete officials would be smart to allow it. Whatever compensation the city negotiates, or is awarded, it likely will be much less than the value of keeping the Rays as a regional asset.Several geographic realities must be faced. Wherever the Rays play, some fans are going to have to drive across the bay bridges. St. Petersburg, the 77th-largest city in the country, can't on its own support one of only 30 major-league teams. It needs maximum help from Tampa, the 55th-largest city, and from many smaller towns and suburbs. Drive times of more than 30 minutes discourage fans, especially those who might otherwise take in a weeknight game after work. Two development proposals recently in the news, without financing plans or Rays' approval, do provide more convenient locations for more area residents. One is on Ulmerton Road near I-275 in central Pinellas. The other is on Tampa's downtown waterfront between the Forum and Florida Aquarium. Both proposals recognize that although baseball is a game without a time clock, time does matter to fans. Over the course of a season, success is measured in small differences. The Yankees won the division this year with 95 wins. The Rays won 90 and missed the playoffs. As Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan observed, the Rays "want to be at a location that gives them the greatest likelihood of success." That the dialogue has started toward that goal is good, but careful and detailed study is needed. The region must get it right because it's highly unlikely we'll get a third chance. Cut 15 minutes off the time it takes most fans to get to the stadium and the Rays still will have empty seats. But the change would lift the Rays out of the ticket-sales basement. Nothing on the local baseball scene is more important than that.