ST. PETERSBURG - Unlike some of his teammates, Carlos Pena hasn't suffered through years of 90-loss seasons as a member of the Rays. But that doesn't mean he can't appreciate the turn the franchise seems to have taken this offseason.
A new identity and the uniforms to match served as the lead-in to an ambitious project that would have the Rays playing in an actual ballpark rather than a multipurpose stadium within five years. Throw in a viable core of major-league-ready players and Pena gets the unmistakable sense that something is happening.
"We're trying to shed the old skin and forget about that," said the first baseman, who is no stranger to rebirth. "Today, we are new. We have new goals, which we believe are tangible. They're right there instead of just idealistic. And we're closer than we think. You add the stadium in and it just caps it off."
As pleasant as it might be for those involved with the Rays to go to work every day in a new home designed just for them, they know architectural renderings of a ballpark that has several hurdles to cross before coming to fruition won't solve anything immediately.
Despite the moves Rays owner Stuart Sternberg and his management group have made to shore up the franchise's image in the Tampa Bay area, they have a ways to go. In fact, it's not a stretch to say the success of the ballpark plan that would be the jewel in Sternberg's crown may lean fairly heavily on more tangible measures of progress.
"I don't know if a new stadium would help that," former Rays standout Fred McGriff said when asked about the team's image. "I think winning would change the perception."
Amidst all the talk of financing, parking and humidity that dominated Wednesday's unveiling of the ballpark plans, Sternberg did take time to assure those present that payroll would continue to increase on a yearly basis. He said he is committed to fielding a competitive team beginning in 2008.
Those closest to the baseball aspects of the situation know how important taking that step past 70 victories in a season would be when it comes to how the franchise is perceived.
"I think the product on the field is obviously the No. 1 criteria," said Bob DuPuy, Major League Baseball's president and chief operating officer. "I was disappointed this year - I was down here for Opening Day and I thought the team was going to have a better year than it had this year. They had some injuries, had some surprises, but I think they do have the core of a very good young team.
"But having the facility that serves as the destination point, gets the fans out, creates a community experience, reaches out to the community is obviously critical. We'd love to see this happen. This is, I think, a visionary idea and can help ensure the success of baseball in Florida for 50 years."
The general feeling is that wouldn't be possible at Tropicana Field, which has been dressed up about as much as it can be the last couple of seasons. And the old dome isn't all bad; Pena, for one, says he has always loved playing there because it's such a consistent environment in which to hit.
Nonetheless, McGriff said, "the Trop served its purpose."
A new ballpark "is something that's needed," he added. "You've still got a lot of planning and decisions and everything, but you've got to give the Rays some credit for trying."