ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. —
HOPE AND REALITY
As the saying goes, "hope springs eternal," and every spring as a new baseball season begins, hope is always in plentiful supply. But for Tampa Bay Rays fans, keeping the faith is needed more off the field than on it.
The Tampa Bay Rays story has always been a plot where the past, present and future are always swirling around the team's journey. As they begin a new season, coming off a pandemic shortened campaign last year in which they outsmarted and out powered their way to the World Series — only to fall to the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games after what many believed was an untimely pitching change — the team is once again stocked with exciting young talent who is the talk of the league, and the franchise is once again at the center of a tug of war over the team's future.
A LEADER IN SEARCH OF A SOLUTION
The cloud of uncertainty about where this team will play and how often in Tampa Bay still lingers over the team, the city and every Rays fan in Tampa Bay. All while owner Stu Sternberg is still actively pursuing a split season concept, sharing the team with Montreal.
When I last sat down with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman in August of 2019, the Rays had just struck out on their efforts to secure a new stadium in Tampa and had just announced the idea of splitting the season with Montreal.
After years of record-low attendance at Tropicana Field, that idea came about, despite the front office consistently putting a competitive team on the field.
Now at the start of the 2021 season, after a giant interruption with a global pandemic, Mayor Kriseman is finally able to narrow down four plans to redevelop the Tropicana Field site.
"Bring me up to date on what's been going on."
"We are for this entire site at 86 acres. We are in a position where we have four finalists for a master developer to redevelop the entire Tropicana site."
"This seems like a real turning point for the city; this seems like something that would have the kind of lasting impact for decades and decades."
"I think this redevelopment has the opportunity to take us to a whole other level. St. Pete is on an upward trajectory as it is, and what's happened here and the changes that have happened in the city are remarkable, and you talk to anyone who's lived here for 20 or 30 years and they are like, "wow what St. Pete has become," but what we can become with the addition of this site to me, is remarkable."
It's About More than Baseball
What's more remarkable are the new visions for the future of St. Petersburg. Those visions are spelled out in highly produced videos from the four redevelopment teams currently making their pitches to the city. The companies are promising to build everything from a new convention center and a flagship hotel to offices, retail, residential buildings and green spaces.
But the biggest promise of all: new ideas to reconnect the city, including building land bridges over I-75 that would re-link the site to its past, when it was once a bustling center of life for Black residents, before the highway cut the community in half, separating the city and forcing many people to move out.
Life in St. Pete dramatically changed in the 1980s when the city first started pursuing its "field of dreams" strategy to build a stadium first in order to lure a team.
The chase for a team ultimately came at the cost of putting off plans to build affordable housing and create jobs — a failed reckoning that left behind a bitter relationship between the city and the Black families who helped build it.
"There were a lot of promises made on this site. This site has a long history, and the city never honored those promises. We have an opportunity to right those wrongs, to take care of those promises that weren't kept to create those jobs and opportunities and those places to live and businesses that should have been here but weren't here," says Mayor Kriseman.
This is why Mayor Kriseman has refused to give up control of the property to the Rays ownership, and it's also why he refuses to bend on asking taxpayers to pay for a new stadium if the team is only willing to play here part-time.
"You know they wanted total control because they want to use those funds to help them pay for a stadium, which means they have to maximize the redevelopment that occurs on the property that they control. If they are maximizing it, housing that's affordable isn't going to drive your profits on the same way that building luxury condos will… we need affordable housing in this community, and I can't ensure it happens on this site if I give up control," says the Mayor. "The community has waited long enough and to quote Dr. King, 'justice delayed is justice denied.' They want justice, they want what they were promised, and there is no sense in putting it off."
Full Circle: The uncertain future of the Tampa Bay Rays
Two Very Different Visions
So that's where the ball sits right now.
On one side, the Rays ownership says they need more revenue, more fans and more of a stadium to survive and compete in a league where big market teams with big new stadiums always have the advantage. Owner Stu Sternberg is in active talks with leaders in Montreal, and reports are that those talks are progressing much faster than the negotiations in St. Petersburg.
At the same time, the MLB player's union has a lot of questions about how this would all work, from compensating players for having to live in two different cities to very practical things like medical care, housing and even childcare for players with families.
We reached out to the Rays front office but did not hear back from them by the time of this publication.
Meanwhile, as for the other side of the bay, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor says there's really nothing to talk about right now.
Tampa was once seen as the only viable solution, many still think it is, but for now, all the momentum on stadium talks has shifted back to St. Petersburg, where the mayor and city council are in the process of narrowing down the four development plans for the Trop. And then they plan to pitch that idea to the Rays, hoping the team will see the promise of a new day in a new city.
A promise that for generations of St. Pete residents was a broken one.