There’s no arguing that Al Lang Stadium was once the primo place to catch a spring-training baseball game in Florida. With its waterfront views and historic connection to the game, it holds a special place in the hearts of every baseball fan who sat along the first-base line and gazed at the sailboats tacking in the bay.
But those days are long gone. Major League Baseball teams want — or more accurately, demand — fully formed training complexes with practice and administrative facilities next to the stadiums where they play.
The arrival of the Rays in 1998, and the team’s move to a training complex in Charlotte County where all its needs are met on one site, relegated baseball at Al Lang to occasional exhibitions and international teams lucky to draw a few hundred fans.
As it decides the future of Al Lang, the city needs to be realistic about baseball. It’s not coming back to Al Lang in any meaningful way. Instead, the city should fully embrace the Tampa Bay Rowdies and seriously consider the possibility of turning the stadium into a fan-friendly place to watch a professional soccer match.
Mayor Rick Kriseman and the City Council took a logical first step along that path by agreeing to spend $250,000 to fix Al Lang’s turf. Converting the field from a baseball diamond with dirt base paths into a soccer field makes for an uneven surface, and the Rowdies deserve to play on a first-rate field that doesn’t risk injury to the players.
Future decisions about the stadium won’t be as simple.
The Rowdies’ owner, developer Bill Edwards, wants a facility that can expand attendance and enhance the fan experience. More than likely that means retiring the baseball field and either rebuilding or reconfiguring Al Lang with the proper site lines. Consultants who studied the entire waterfront as part of a master plan think a multi-purpose facility should be considered. Traditionalists favor a baseball presence at Al Lang.
But that conflicts with the Rowdies, and keeping the team content in the short-term may very well turn into an excellent long-term investment. The team has developed an enthusiastic fan base while playing in the North American Soccer League, considered a step below the country’s premier league, Major League Soccer.
The stadium’s location and the sport are a perfect match.
The city’s downtown continues to burnish its reputation as a hip destination for dining and entertainment, while interest in soccer is steadily rising across the country as people become more familiar with the game and more cities sign on to host teams.
The start of the 2014 World Cup is a good time for city council members to observe fans filling bars to cheer for their team and to consider what a stadium built for soccer might bring to the city’s economy and reputation. The Rowdies are drawing several thousand fans with a sub-par facility. A more suitable one would bring more fans and, possibly, a step up to a Major League Soccer franchise that could add thousands of more fans filling the pubs and restaurants near Al Lang.
Waiting too long to decide soccer’s future may prove costly. Pinellas County will soon consider how to reapportion $6 million in bed taxes that becomes available when the construction bonds on Tropicana Field are retired next year. And state legislators passed a bill this year that might make money available for a professional soccer stadium at Al Lang.
Baseball at Al Lang appears to have run its course. And by every indication, the Tampa Bay Rays are destined to go down in history as the team that left St. Petersburg. To fill that void, professional soccer just might be the ticket.