tampabay.com

If Rays go, Al Lang could be reduced to memories

By AARON SHAROCKMAN
Published August 15, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG — The baseball diamond where Mickey Mantle swung for the fences in the 1950s, Ozzie Smith kicked up dirt in the 1980s and the Devil Rays trotted out their inaugural team in the 1990s may be entering its final inning.

For the first time since it opened in 1947, Al Lang Field will be without a team if the Devil Rays leave their waterfront spring training home as planned in 2009.

And if the Devil Rays go, Al Lang — with its idyllic views of Tampa Bay and a storied history — could be lost forever, too.

On Tuesday, Mayor Rick Baker suggested for the first time that the ballpark, now called Progress Energy Park, may not be in the city’s future plans.

Baker said if the city is unable to lure a spring replacement for the Rays — and one baseball official said the odds of finding one are bleak — he would consider leveling the stadium and turning the land into a park.

“If it’s confirmed the Rays are leaving … obviously we would turn our attention to what we are going to do with that property and that facility going forward,” Baker said. “Clearly, one of the options would be making it open space.”

St. Petersburg has been called the unofficial home of spring training baseball and has played host to a team most every year since 1914. The Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals once trained in the city, bringing the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Bob Gibson and Stan Musial with them. And the New York Mets spent their first 26 years training in St. Petersburg.

The city bought 47 acres of waterfront land including the area where Progress Energy Park now sits for $23.50 in 1868, according to city records.

The first waterfront baseball field was built a block north of the current stadium in 1922 for the Boston Braves, now the Atlanta Braves. Al Lang Field was built in 1947 for $300,000. Thirty years later, the city renovated the park, adding the current 6,400 seat grandstand that rings the first and third base lines.

The Devil Rays have played their spring training games at Progress Energy Park since their inaugural year in 1998.

“Things are different now. We have a Major League Baseball team,” Mayor Baker said. “I think if most people had to choose, they would choose the Major League Baseball team. We’re happy to have them.”

The Rays are under contract to play at Progress Energy Park in 2007 and have two one-year options that could keep the team in town until June 2009.

Team officials said last week they are optimistic the Rays will move their spring operation to Charlotte County starting in 2009 as part of a plan to broaden the club’s fan appeal across the region.

Baker said he would not fight the relocation. He said Tuesday he would consider attracting another team each spring, but only if the Rays approved. Rays officials said that discussion was premature, since the deal to move isn’t finalized.

Eighteen major league teams spend their springs in Florida, but many, like the Atlanta Braves in Orlando and the Philadelphia Phillies in Clearwater, already train in new or renovated facilities.

“The market initially would appear to be bleak,” said Jeff Maultsby, the director of Florida operations for the Cincinnati Reds, which train in Sarasota.

St. Petersburg’s historic ballpark is cursed by its beautiful surroundings, baseball officials say. Baseball teams in the spring need training complexes, not just a stadium. But at Al Lang, which is bordered by the water, a Hilton and the renovated Mahaffey Theater, there’s just nowhere to grow.

John Timberlake, the director of the Florida operations for the Philadelphia Phillies, said St. Petersburg would have to find room for larger and more modern facilities to attract another team.

“It’s completely dependent on how important it is to the people of St. Petersburg,” said Timberlake, whose Phillies opened a new $30-million stadium in Clearwater in 2004.

Spring training is a tourism boom for the area — worth $40-million a year, according to Timberlake — but the city of St. Petersburg does not see that money directly.

The city will collect $0.60 per ticket next year for Rays spring training games, as well as about $50,000 as part of a naming rights agreement with Progress Energy. The money, about $75,000 total, does not come close to the $950,000 the city pays the Devil Rays to maintain Progress Energy Park and the Rays practice facilities at Walter Fuller Park near Tyrone Square Mall.

The city would be left to keep up the fields itself should the Rays move.  

“We either decide to get another team or we’ve got some soul searching to do,” said City Council chairman Bill Foster. “If we’re not going to use it for baseball, then at what cost should we keep it?”

Any change other than making it a park would likely trigger a public referendum, because the property is along the waterfront. Foster said he would encourage a referendum no matter what changes were proposed at Al Lang. “That’s too big of a decision for myself and my colleagues to make.”

Staff researchers Caryn Baird and Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report.