Sunday, July 31, 2011

Tampa Learning Lesson St. Pete Already Learned

Much like St. Pete learned three years ago, Tampa and Hillsborough Co. are learning a tough lesson: voters hate it when public deals are negotiated in private.

Similarly to how the Rays' failed waterfront stadium deal went down, officials in Tampa are trying to wipe the egg off their face after agreeing to hand over $1+ million in incentives to a large mystery company "considering" a move out of town.

That business turned out to be PricewaterhouseCoopers, and it turns out it may not have ever been leaving the region in the first place.

My guess is, Hillsborough leaders will ask smarter questions the next time they're presented with a similar situation.

But the jury is still out as to whether leaders will act any different when it's a sports team - the Rays - asking, "please help subsidize our expansion or else we're leaving?"

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Times Editorial Board Makes Another Stadium Plea

There were a pair of thoughtful commentaries in this morning's St. Petersburg Times on the stadium saga.

Columnist John Romano contends (with good reason) the biggest problem for the Rays is the lack of business support - largely because of the stadium's location in St. Petersburg, rather than Tampa.

The paper's editorial board took a much more aggressive approach, pleading with Mayor Bill Foster and Rays management to end their stalemate. The board places most of the blame on Foster for protecting his community's investments above the greater good of the Tampa Bay region:
It seems everyone recognizes a sense of urgency to get serious and think regionally except Foster, who hasn't budged in a year. That's not good for St. Petersburg taxpayers or the future of Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay.

Foster refuses to accept the reality that Tampa Bay is one market and that the Rays and the community need to explore potential stadium sites in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. The mayor's offer last year to let the Rays look at sites outside St. Petersburg in mid Pinellas was a positive first step, but it did not go far enough. It's not reasonable to declare Hillsborough off limits, just as it would not be reasonable for the Rays to rule out Pinellas County without looking at the entire market. The Tampa Bay region has matured beyond such narrow thinking on issues ranging from drinking water to transit to higher education, and professional sports requires the same kind of broader vision.

Foster pointed out last week during the dustup over the Trop's shortcomings that he is the mayor of St. Petersburg, not Tampa Bay. But his refusal to compromise with the Rays is no way to treat any prominent business, and it is not in the long-term financial interests of city taxpayers. Every month that clicks off the calendar with no movement is a month closer to paying off the stadium bonds and to the 2027 expiration of the lease. Every month that goes by with no action costs the city leverage and makes it less expensive for the Rays to break the lease or, more likely, starve the team financially and stall for more time.
The editorial makes good points, but it neglects to acknowledge one thing - Foster has said he's waiting on the Rays to sit down and talk and so far, they haven't been interested.
It should not be this difficult to break this deadlock. Foster should negotiate an agreement with the Rays that would allow them to study stadium sites in both Pinellas and Hills­borough counties for a specific time period in return for compensation that recognizes St. Petersburg's civic and financial commitment to baseball. The Rays would have to commit to thoroughly considering sites in both counties, and the city still would hold the Trop lease as its trump card.
The Times is asking Foster to simply give up some of his leverage on the team right now, a concession the mayor seems unlikely to make. The way he sees it, doing nothing ensures the region at least 15 more years of Rays baseball. While it's not going to get Tampa Bay very far in its quest to keep the Rays for generations to come, it's a risk Foster seems willing to take in a bad economy.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Tampa Yankees Won't Move to Orlando

It seemed like a foregone conclusion (I wrote about it in this space a year ago), but the far-fetched plan to move the Tampa Yankees to Orlando appears dead.

Armando Gutierrez, the 29-year-old businessman who has held multiple press conferences promising Central Florida the moon (it started with a pledge to bring MLB to the area), has struck out. Time to roll back up the proverbial "mission accomplished" banner.

Mission Accomplished

Despite an online campaign to urge Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs to support a land giveaway, "Baseball in Orlando" was rebuffed Wednesday as Jacobs terminated their quest for land next to the Orange Co. Convention Center. The mayor cited the group's inflated attendance projections and discounted rent offer.

You can read more about Gutierrez' struggles to bring the Yankees to Orlando here, but we probably still haven't heard the last from him. He's proven very stubborn in his attempts so far.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Maybe the Rays Don't Hate The Trop

Does Joe Maddon really hate The Trop? Or is he just talking to the baseball gods?

Last year on August 5, Joe Maddon ripped The Trop after a catwalk played a role in a loss. A month later, he "made amends" after the Rays won a game with a near-catwalk strike.

This year on July 19, Maddon ripped The Trop after consecutive nights of stadium delays. But that same night, after Yankees outfielder Curtis Granderson lost a ball in the stadium lights, he again apologized.

Coincidence? Or is Maddon really the smartest man in baseball?

Also, at least one player told the Tampa Tribune people should just get over it:
Monday's delay was weather related, and Rays pitcher J.P. Howell pointed out Tuesday that if it weren't for the roof and the catwalks that keep it in place, the game would have been delayed a lot longer because of the thunderstorm raging outside the stadium.

"Whatever," Howell said of the criticism lobbed at the Trop. "There's a (flag) pole in Houston right in the middle of the playing field in the outfield. Some stadiums have short porches, and I think that's ridiculous. In those places it's a unique thing. In the old Twins stadium you couldn't see fly balls because of the ceiling, that's part of the gig. That's the only home field advantage we have, and it's not really an advantage."

Stadium Saga Re-Focuses on Money...and Logic

Times columnist John Romano makes a great point in this morning's paper: the stadium issue "all comes back to money."

The column echoes mine from November 2010, when I said the debate about stadium location was moot until they discovered a magical pot of money somewhere....or discussed a regional-funding effort.

While Romano has been way off-base at times on the stadium issue , he was also critical of Rays' manager Joe Maddon in 2010 the last time the skipper criticized the stadium.

Now, he fine-tunes his tone on the matter, bringing about some relevant points:

Catwalks, broken lights and ESPN blowhards have no business in the discussion of whether the Tampa Bay area needs to consider the construction of a new stadium.

When Rays manager Joe Maddon said Tuesday that Tropicana Field was improper for Major League Baseball after 14 seasons, it sounded almost as silly as St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster once saying the catwalks were the equivalent of Wrigley Field's ivy.

This isn't about artificial turf or low-hanging speakers or lightning strikes on national television. This is about money. And it is about the future of baseball in Tampa Bay. And it might even be about the city of St. Petersburg's reputation and its ultimate direction.

Romano goes on to say "Attendance and revenue streams at Tropicana Field are not sufficient for Major League Baseball's needs" - a point may take issue with since MLB hasn't provided any evidence of this.

But Romano hits the nails on the head when it comes to what's going on inside the head of Stu Sternberg: "Stu Sternberg (isn't) going broke...the Rays are (simply) making far less money than 90-95 percent of their baseball business partners."

The column continues by applauding Sternberg for saving the Rays franchise and making it a winner, but applauds St. Petersburg for building a stadium on the backs of taxpayers.

Romano says it comes down to the commissioner:
Bud Selig needs to acknowledge that MLB owes St. Petersburg a debt. We were his street corner tart for more than a decade, helping stadiums get built in other markets. Maybe that doesn't get us a lifetime pass, but MLB is flush with enough cash that it needs to take an active part in any new stadium discussions here.
But tougher questions about the stadium saga are posed by Field of Schemes' Neil deMause:
There's no doubt that Maddon and Silverman would love a new workplace — hey, who wouldn't? — but some of their complaints border on the bizarre: Rain is a "disruption to the game"? Rays players can't focus on baseball because they're worried that other cities are making fun of them? And, for that matter, how exactly is a shattered lightbulb — the first in nearly 14 seasons of games at the Trop — an indication that the whole place needs to be torn down (as opposed to, say, switching to sturdier light fixtures)?
The real question that should be asked, meanwhile, is if the Trop is really "improper for Major League Baseball," why so many teams threatened to move there in the '80s and '90s in order to extract new stadiums from their home cities (off the top of my head: the White Sox, Indians, Giants, Rangers, and at least two or three more that I'm forgetting); not to mention why MLB ultimately gave St. Petersburg an expansion franchise in 1998 despite knowing where their home park would be. Has the definition of "improper" really changed that much in 13 years? If rain is now an unacceptable distraction, I guess maybe...

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Matt Silverman Chimes In on Stadium Saga

And Rays President Matt Silverman joins in on the Trop-bashing too:
In a statement released to the media today Silverman said, "Joe speaks from the heart, and I agree with what he said. It’s hard to combat the national media’s depiction of our stadium. Our situation has become a distraction. It is affecting the clubhouse, and it spills over onto the field of play. It damages the national reputation of St. Pete and Tampa Bay, and it harms the Rays brand. Clearly, something needs to be done.”
The Rays have made it clear they want the region to come together to think of something, but they haven't been overly eager to suggest solutions (of course, St. Pete's pesky threat of lawsuit may have something to do that).

Last year, when Stu Sternberg held his landmark stadium press conference, I wrote, "Sternberg didn't offer any suggestions of how a stadium would get built in this economy, he merely said the region needs to come together to get it done. I imagine the team will eventually contribute to a new stadium, but for negotiating sake, that offer isn't on the table yet."

A year later, very little has changed. In fact, it may be a while before anything does.

Maddon: Mayor Foster Has "Head in Sand"

Just when we thought the Stadium Saga would stay quiet for a few months, we get a catwalk delay Sunday, a lightning delay Monday, and Joe Maddon sounding off Tuesday. It's similar to Maddon's stadium complaints from last August, but gotta strike while the iron is hot, right?

"You shouldn’t play with all these obstructions, and all these caveats. Of course not. It's runs it's course. It was here for a moment. It served it's purpose. And now it’s time to move on. Absolutely it is. And to deny that, everybody has just got their head in the sand, period.

"This is a great place to raise a family and for me it's a great place to have a major-league team - the Tampa Bay area. So looking down the road I would hope that people have enough foresight to construct the new ballpark in the right place that maintains us here for many years, and permits us to build this (organization) into what we can. It's already pretty darn good - we could make it even better with the right facilities.

"The new ballpark would have to be retractable. To do otherwise would be economic suicide – it’s uncomfortable, the rain, the disruptions with the game, the disruptions with your work. All that stuff would be counter-productive. If you’re going to do it, do it right. Do it right, man."
The Sporting News reports Maddon is already thinking about stadium designs. Maddon also took what Times writer Marc Topkin called "veiled shots" at St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster, who responded:

"I agree it's a regional asset and it requires support from the entire region. As I said before, I am not the regional mayor. I am the mayor of the city of St. Petersburg and I will do whatever I can to protect the interests of the people who built the stadium.

"We absolutely need to work with the region...I’ve always been one to look at the regional approach when it comes to attract fans to Tropicana Field. But the region didn’t build Tropicana Field. It was the people of Pinellas County who built Tropicana Field. So right now I am only concerned with their interests and protecting their investments.

"They have 15 years left on their lease yeah, I’m holding on pretty tightly. If they want to look at sites within Pinellas County, I'm all for that."
Last month I wrote about what was going on inside Foster's head, and his comments today seem to confirm my assumptions.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Catwalk Controversy: 2011 Revival

Looks like we can look forward to another week's worth of Tropicana Field-bashing after 16 innings and nearly six hours of fun last night.

The game would have been shorter had a Sean Rodriguez pop-up not shattered a light hanging from the catwalk. NESN tweeted, "shards of hot glass are falling on Tropicana Field after the catwalk's struck again. Batboys are collecting the glass in their gloves."

My first thought is, "I wonder if it's the same bulb I shot in my 2010 story on the Trop's catwalks?"

But my next thought was how strange it is that the Tampa Bay region spends more time defending its stadium and its fan base than the team's management does.

I can't remember a time when the team's top brass has been over-complimentary of the region's fans and when it says anything about The Trop, it's obviously about the need to replace it. A little stadium promotion would go a long way toward making fans want to visit.

St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster, however, dons his marketing cap when it comes The Trop, comparing its quirks to the ivy at Wrigley Field or the Green Monster at Fenway Park.

And Pinellas Co. Commissioner Ken Welch took it a little more personal last night, tweeting, "Watching the Rays game - The ESPN commentators whining about the Trop got old a couple of hours (or years) ago..."

Sorry Ken, the talk isn't going anywhere. It's not like Stu Sternberg will try to convince anyone to embrace the park's pesky "quirks" the way the Red Sox front office did when the region was lamenting Fenway Park's tiny seats, poor sightlines, and illegally-close foul poles in the late 1990s.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Sternberg (Relatively) Quiet on Attendance Talk

Regardless of whether Stu Sternberg was being calculated when he essentially said "no comment" to the same ole attendance questions, it's a nice reprieve from the media's recycled reaction to it:
"I'm tired of thinking about it, talking about it," Sternberg said. "You're tired of asking me the question, and most importantly, everybody is tired of hearing about it. So it's really all about what's going to be is going to be. And what it is, is what it is.

"And we're going to try and do as well as we can on the field and enjoy what's happening day-to-day. The numbers that are coming through are what they are. I don't anticipate talking about it or focusing on it at all this season or any time in the near future after that."
After two long-awaited games against the Red Sox, the Rays' average attendance is at 19,570 and climbing, up to 28th in the majors.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Selig Stays on Sideline in Stadium Saga (for now)

As Times columnist John Romano writes, Commissioner Bud Selig didn't have a whole lot to say on the Rays' stadium search front:
It seems Tampa Bay is notable on Bud Selig's radar these days. The commissioner is impressed with the Rays on the field, concerned with attendance in the stands and bothered by the words of St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster.

On opening day at Tropicana Field, Foster said he was prepared for interference from Major League Baseball and all of the commissioner's "tricks" when it came to stadium issues in Tampa Bay.

Selig would not discuss the apparent stalemate between the Rays and the city but told the St. Petersburg Times that he took exception to the mayor's characterization of his role.
Selig also said that we could soon see more wild-card teams, an action Rays owner Stu Sternberg told me last winter he was very much in favor of.

At Least One National Writer Loves The Trop

Travel writer Peter Greenberg lists his top five baseball stadiums to visit this summer, including:
Tropicana Field – St. Petersburg, FL
Don’t believe the banter you hear about this ballpark. Tropicana Field is one of the most underrated venues in the big leagues and it’s hard not to have a good time there. It may look a little funny, but the Tampa Bay Rays front office has done a terrific job of making the stadium fan-friendly.

There are probably more things to do at Tropicana Field than in any other ballpark in MLB. Take a trip out to Left Field Street to participate in baseball-themed game show or get your picture taken on a Topps Baseball Card. Behind the centerfield wall, you can touch and feed live cownose rays. In Right Field Street, your kids can have their swing analyzed on a computer scouting system or paint at Raymond’s Art Studio.

If you actually want to watch the game, then you can sit in an unobstructed seat in a comfortable air-conditioned dome that keeps you free from the punishing Florida humidity. The Rays front office has their low-budget team in playoff contention again, so you’ll always watch a good product on the field. Tickets are affordable when you buy directly through the team as Tampanians are reluctant to cross a bridge into St. Petersburg.
He makes half-decent points, but loses all credibility in my mind when he includes dingy Dodger Stadium and corporate Yankee Stadium in his list above gems like Fenway and Wrigley.

Friday, July 8, 2011

"Baseball in Orlando" Still Not Getting Anywhere Fast

Two months ago, we said "Promises of 'Baseball in Orlando' Empty So Far." Two months later, little has changed.

Despite the support of John Morgan of Morgan & Morgan fame, a 5,000-seat "Yankeetown" complex on I-Drive for the Yankees' Single-A team (now in Tampa) seems to be creating more baseball critics than baseball fans.

Heck, the brainchild of young rich guy Armando Gutierrez may not even be legal.

But don't sell supporters like Morgan short yet...he did, after all, help a major network buckle after reminding us, "you can't Tivo Tebow."