St. Petersburg: Thankless Home of the Rays

St. Petersburg deserves better than the image baseball paints of it

The City of St. Petersburg has hosted a Major League Baseball team for twenty years.

Over those twenty years, it has been mistaken for Tampa by countless out of town reporters, spoken about as though it were a small village, seen as a place for vacationers to watch their favorite team play against the Rays, and treated like a curse placed on the ballclub by forces beyond everybody’s power.

Worse still, since the Tampa Bay Rays began existence as the Devil Rays in 1998, people have been talking about moving the team anywhere but St. Pete.

Needless to say, this does not paint the rosiest image of St. Petersburg. While most sports teams are seen as extensions of their cities, and bring to mind images we fondly associate with those places, the Rays are often treated as a team that plays anywhere.

Sports teams are often seen as extensions of their cities, and a reason to visit those cities. This is especially true of baseball, a game that takes place in the ideal season for most cities. PNC Park in Pittsburgh paints a beautiful picture of the city. Fenway Park and Wrigley Field are destinations. AT&T Park makes San Francisco look like an ideal place to spend a weekend.

When Stuart Sternberg, owner of the Tampa Bay Rays, came out onto the field to take media questions before the Rays’ opening day game on Thursday, most of the questions concerned the city of Tampa.

Of course the Rays’ long-term plan is of the utmost importance. The Tampa Bay Rays must develop some kind of long term plan to find a new place to play beyond the place once called Thunderdome. The building’s location is less than optimal, it is beginning to show some age, and an eventual new ballpark will help the Rays succeed on a new level.

Still, for twenty years the city of St. Petersburg has hosted a Major League Baseball club, and within the league it may have never been treated like a Major League Baseball city.

St. Pete is a town that built a Major League ballpark with no guarantee that a team would ever come there. It’s a city that has put up with twenty years of being a punchline for fans in 29 other markets, and one that has had to deal with being constantly mistaken for Tampa by out of towners. Before that it had to put up with being the threat teams would make to get their cities to give them favorable deals or new stadiums.

The building we now know as the Trop, of course, was built in the 1980s as an attempt to lure the Chicago White Sox. That led to the building of New Comiskey Park, which has undergone many name changes since. The San Francisco Giants came so close to moving that there were Tampa Bay Giants hats made. The Seattle Mariners flirted with the idea of St. Pete in the early 1990s.

St. Petersburg put up with building that stadium and not even getting the first expansion franchise in Florida.

It’s a unique history within baseball. The Suncoast Dome was built to draw a Major League Baseball team to St. Petersburg, and in the end it accomplished that goal.

Perhaps it’s time, then, to look at St. Pete not as a temporary home for a baseball team just waiting for bigger and better things, but as the only home one of just thirty Major League Baseball organizations has ever had. The city that begged for a baseball team should not have to beg to have its identity associated with the Rays.

The Trop is a part of St. Petersburg, something inherently Floridian: A building constructed against the best advice of experts, that still managed to serve its intended purpose after all. From the highway, it looks like a spaceship has landed. It’s in an inconvenient location, leading to attendance problems, which then led to people bringing cowbells to make more noise per person.

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The Ybor site is nothing more than an address at the moment. There is no agreement to build a stadium. There is simply no guarantee that the Rays will move to Tampa. At the end of the day they might never end up leaving St. Petersburg.

There are still more questions than answers at this point with the Ybor site. In the meanwhile, St. Petersburg will continue to be the one and only home of the Tampa Bay Rays, still happy to be in the game after all these years.

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