If Rays go, Al Lang could be reduced to memories
Without a spring baseball tenant, St. Petersburg would consider options for the ballpark that include leveling it.
By AARON SHAROCKMAN
Published August 16, 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 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. Any change other than making Al Lang into a park would likely trigger a public referendum, because the property is along the waterfront.
"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 almost 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.
Jack Wholley has attended at least one spring game at Al Lang for the last 50 years. Before he moved to St. Petersburg in 1969, Wholley vacationed in Florida just to attend games at the ballpark.
Wholley said he would be disheartened to see spring training move out of town.
"Al Lang Field is the best," Wholley, 69, said. "You always hope to have your team here during spring training because then you can follow them more."
The city bought 47 acres of waterfront land including the area where the ballpark 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, Florida operations director for the Cincinnati Reds, who 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, called the ballpark one of the most beautiful anywhere. He pointed out that spring training is a tourism boom for the area - worth $40-million a year. To attract another team, St. Petersburg would have to find room for larger and more modern facilities, he said.
"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.
Randy Peirick, 58, said spring training was one of the reasons he and his wife retired in Florida. Peirick, of Oldsmar, has been going to games at Al Lang Field since 1988.
"It would be a crying shame to not have spring training at Al Lang Field," he said. "No matter who plays there."
Times researchers Caryn Baird and Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report.
Al Lang Field: A timeline
Nov. 16, 1945: At his 75th birthday party the City Council presented Al Lang with the resolution to name the city's new baseball stadium Albert F. Lang Field. It had been known as St. Petersburg Athletic Park before then.
March 12, 1947: The new ballpark, designed by Paul J. Jorgensen, is dedicated in front of 7,706 fans before the first spring training game of the season.
March 28, 1959: Then-Sen. John F. Kennedy speaks to supporters at a rally held by the Pinellas County Democratic Party.
March 12, 1977: The new $3.5-million Al Lang Stadium is dedicated, replacing Al Lang Field which was torn down in October 1975.
March 3, 1982: The Today show broadcasts from the stadium with Willard Scott out in leftfield.
Feb. 26, 1998: City Council votes to change the name to Florida Power Park: Home of Al Lang Field.
Tell us what you think should be done with the stadium at itsyourtimes.com.
[Last modified August 20, 2006, 08:44:07]
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