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An apology for backing MLB dream

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By HUBERT MIZELL, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 9, 2002

Blame me. Twenty years ago, I was writing of Tampa Bay's baseball promise as I perceived it. By now, it's painfully clear I was awry with many hopes and instincts.

I was guilty of wanting it too much. Guilty of believing too deeply. Guilty of miscalculating Florida baseball interest. Guilty of thinking the major-league inspirations from my state's history with spring training would translate into summer magic if we had a ballclub(s).

I don't know if it's more appropriate to apologize or cry. I'm primed for either, or both. My biggest sins were misjudgments. Thinking our state was strong for baseball. Feeling so sure regular-season comings of Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, Tigers and Orioles would create frequent sellouts.

Did you know all along? Were you convinced Florida gets revved only for football, with other sports depending on whims of front-running attitudes, such as the brief, misleading South Florida delirium over its world-champion Marlins?

I wanted to believe otherwise. Since my Jacksonville youth, there had been magnetism for baseball's classic teams and mighty individuals. As a lad, I would have driven many hours, sleeping in my car, to see Musial, Williams, Clemente, Mantle, Koufax or my boyhood hero Aaron.

All that has changed. When did I fall off the reality train? In a way, it's a national dilemma. Despite some of the more heroic accomplishments, with the thunder of Bonds, Sosa and McGwire, plus a dazzling World Series in October, baseball keeps losing national attraction.

I have not given up, just backed off. I have retired as a daily newspaper columnist and moved north, writing mostly for the Times on Sundays from my tranquil perch in Virginia's foothills.

Nah, I am not giving up on the D-Rays or on major-league baseball in Florida. Not yet. But the meter keeps dropping. My face has been reddened by slaps of reality.

It hurts, even from 777 miles away, as I track the groping Rays via Internet and cable TV, feeling lousy about pricey personnel misfires, watching them fail two games in three, then checking box scores for attendance numbers that seldom satisfy.

Some elements are difficult to explain. During our sales-pitching 1980s, it seemed a hardball lock that, when the Red Sox or Yanks came to St. Petersburg, with hundreds of thousands of relocated Boston and New York fans homesteading in Florida, there would be caravans of loaded buses coming from across the peninsula, spending a couple of hotel nights, using Tampa Bay restaurants and loading the pews of a domed stadium.

Hasn't happened. Not even close. Not even today's famous players from Fenway and Yankee Stadium can half-fill Tropicana Field. How wrong I was. Maybe you knew all along.

Worst of all, the baseball heartbeat of the Tampa Bay area has proved to be a skipping, disappointing flutter. At least, when it's a Pedro Martinez pitching or an Alex Rodriguez working at shortstop, you would think the appeal of such talents might sweeten the Trop crowd to 35,000 or more.

There always has been an electricity in opportunities to observe in person when an athletic phenomenon goes to work. At least a curiosity. In the flashy times of your Rowdies, when Pele would show at Tampa Stadium, it was reason enough to buy a ticket. Even if you did not care about soccer. Just because he was such an incredible global presence. Perhaps you loathe the Rays' ballpark. Critics, regional and worldwide, have blasted the dome as ugly and/or inefficient and/or poorly located and/or a massive community mistake.

Maybe that is a killer factor, but it is not the ultimate element in Tampa Bay's baseball suffering. Can we waste no more time fussing over stuff that cannot realistically be redone? Who would spend a half-billion dollars or so to try another facility approach, when Florida's passion for the sport must be questioned?

For generations, New Englanders would cram into steamy, uncomfortable, archaic Boston Garden because they adored experiencing Celtics basketball and/or Bruins hockey. When the show is amply attractive, a less-than-dazzling theater can be gloriously overcome.

The Trop isn't snazzy, but to say it's a dump is ludicrous. Summer nights are cool in there. It's not uncomfortable. Not a lethal impediment.

We can debate Rays prices, attitudes, promotions and surely their ever-dragging on-field performances, but in goal-chasing there is nothing more formidable than a Florida baseball urge that by now is questionable.

Even if Greg Vaughn were having 40-homer seasons and Wilson Alvarez were a 15-game winner and kid prospects Toby Hall and Jason Tyner were afire instead of flopping, can we be sure the Rays, if they were a .500 product, would be drawing 25,000 or 30,000?

I'm not guessing.

It is no one's civic duty to attend games. There must be personal desires. Legit interest. At least a fascination. If not, it's easy for Hillsborough County residentsto whine about a drive of 30 to 45 minutes, even if the average spectator burns an hour-plus to reach games in St. Louis, Boston, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta and other successful locales.

Simple question is: Does Tampa Bay want baseball? Does Florida? A generation ago, I was sure of the answers. So wrong, it seems. I was guilty of overexuberance.

Reality keeps being painful.

-- To reach Hubert Mizell, e-mail or mail to P.O. Box 726, Nellysford, VA 22958.

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