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Baseball has responsibility to help free Rays from financial prison

Special to The Tampa Tribune
Published: August 21, 2013

Now that the Tampa Bay Rays’ public relations campaign to move the team to a successful venue is finally getting some traction, aided by Major League Baseball itself, it is appropriate to remind all stakeholders of past history and of those responsible for the poor placement of the team from the inception of both Tropicana Field and the team. In doing so, perhaps one of those responsible parties, perhaps the most responsible, will recognize its complicity and step up to the plate.

On July 24, 1986, the St. Petersburg City Council voted to build the domed stadium. The citizens did not make this decision. The council deprived its constituency from voting on whether to incur massive debt to build a stadium in an unusual part of town — and with no commitment from MLB. Indeed, not only was there no commitment that St. Petersburg would be awarded a team, but also then-MLB Commissioner Peter Uebberoth, in a visionary statement, directly warned St. Pete not to build the thing. On July 16, 1986, about a week before the City Council voted to build the stadium, he said this: “On behalf of Major League Baseball, I want to reaffirm to you that no assurances can be given with respect to the establishment of a Major League Baseball franchise in St. Petersburg. Indeed, in our evaluation of potential cities for relocation or expansion, St. Petersburg is not among the top candidates.” (Emphasis supplied.)

Years later, with MLB owners wanting to expand and seeing that the stadium was built, MLB went ahead, notwithstanding its earlier (and correct) doubt about the location, and awarded the team to St. Pete. And when it did so, it bypassed the arguably stronger bid of a Tampa operation.

What MLB did is rather much like a parent telling a naïve child not to play with matches and then turning around and rewarding the child profusely with grandiose gifts when the child does just that. What an irresponsible parent. So now that the metaphoric child has been burned, it is ironic that MLB owners are disappointed in having to fund “welfare” in the form of revenue-sharing dollars to the Rays and are pressuring its fan base to figure out a way to build and support a better venue.

Simply put, MLB is as much to blame, maybe more, on the Rays’ poor attendance as St. Petersburg and Pinellas County (which lag behind Tampa in providing behinds in seats, interestingly). Accordingly, MLB itself needs to atone for the sins of the owners who voted to imprison a franchise in a place their commissioner recognized could not be a major league town.

So, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, it’s about time you intervened! Yes, as he noted, “[b]aseball needs a resolution to this problem.” It’s you. MLB, step up to the plate. Pitch in to cure the problem your organization created, one that was foreseeable even before the first shovel of dirt was lifted to build the Trop. Agree to fund a meaningful share of a new stadium in a central location, one that can be easily reached by a critical mass of fans. That critical mass together with the Rays’ talented owners and local governments that value keeping MLB in the central Gulf Coast area will do the rest.

And don’t worry about the Trop lease with St. Petersburg. That can be resolved consensually if wise judgment prevails, or, if not, non-consensually through court proceedings, as we all know from watching the Texas Rangers.

Oh, and St. Petersburg Mayor Foster, quit trying to reinvent history. His predecessors built the Trop with no guaranty of a team. They used the Trop for antique shows and tractor pulls, among other things not remotely related to baseball. No one can credibly say that St. Petersburg has a duty to its citizens to preserve something that was not even available when the reckless decision to build was made without even a vote of the citizens. (And yet the citizens do get to vote on whether to build The Lens at the pier site, so maybe that’s a lesson learned from the Trop.) I wonder what then- Assistant City Manager Rick Dodge and the City Council think of their grand build-it-and-they-will-come strategy now. Sure, the team came, but the fans didn’t. The Trop was never destined to be the Field of Dreams. And MLB knew it all along.

Cathy Peek was a Tampa Tribune/Tampa Times sports writer from 1975-79. She is a Rays season-ticket holder.