tampabay.com

Someday is not today

One of these days, principal owner Stuart Sternberg will begin talking about the need for a new stadium for the Rays. But not yet. 

By Gary Shelton
Published May 9, 2007


Soon enough, the subject will come up.

Soon enough, the debate will begin.

Stuart Sternberg will talk quietly, because that is his way. He will not threaten, because that would not be smart. He will not slam his fist into the table, because that would not work.

Soon enough, Sternberg will simply work the topic into conversation, a what-do-you-think mention to the right politician at the right time. Right about then, the dreaded line will be crossed.

One second, Sternberg will say "new."

The next, he will say "stadium."

Soon enough after that, we will see what Tampa Bay really thinks of the Rays.

It is coming. Of course it is coming. You know that in the same grand sense that you know that bills will come due and you will need a new car and, really, you should do something about retirement. In other words, it is one of those concepts you are prepared to deal with ... eventually.

But not yet.

Perhaps Sternberg arched your eyebrows Tuesday morning. In a story about the Rays' upcoming series in Orlando, the New York Times asked Sternberg about Tropicana Field. "We recognize it has a shelf life of five years, " Sternberg is quoted as saying.

To sum up Tampa Bay's response: Aack.

Given what we have seen from owners and taxpayers in the past, the statement was enough to make you grab your wallet with both hands. It certainly isn't beyond most owners to float such an idea, in a manner of an outfielder tossing blades of grass into the air to test the wind.

Sternberg swears that isn't what happened here. In an hour-long conversation with the St. Petersburg Times, Sternberg repeatedly said that he has not altered from his stance that the remaining life expectancy of the Trop is "from five to 20 years."

Also, he said this:

"I will never demand a new stadium."

And this:

"I don't expect the taxpayers to buy me a new stadium."

And this:

"No one is going to lose a team. We aren't going anywhere."

If that doesn't calm your blood, then consider this: Sternberg isn't going to talk about a new stadium (yet) because the time isn't right (yet). He hasn't proven enough (yet) or increased the payroll enough (yet) to earn the public trust he would need to get the tax help (yet).

But, yeah, it's coming.

If nothing else, the New York Times article was enough to start the conversation for the rest of us. When is a new stadium reasonable? Where should it be built? How should it look?

Oh, and there is this: Who should pay for it?

Look, it shouldn't shock anyone to find out that, when the doors close, the Rays muckety-mucks talk about a new stadium. If you owned the team, wouldn't you? Particularly with the Marlins chasing state funds for a new stadium (the Senate voted no last week) for the sixth time in seven years?

It has been three years since commissioner Bud Selig talked about the Rays' need for a new stadium. In the 17 years (and three names) since the Trop was built, 21 other stadiums have been built or approved for other major league baseball teams. In other words, the Trop is old enough to check for an expiration date.

As the Marlins' struggles show, however, getting a new stadium built is a tricky thing. There are a lot of moving parts: timing and economics and politics and popularity.

"I don't think anyone shows up with a stadium in a box, " Sternberg said. "It's not like a Road Runner cartoon, where Acme Stadium comes in and plops down a stadium with four walls."

Let's be honest. When it is time to talk about a new stadium, how you feel about it may correlate to how you feel about Sternberg. A year and a half into his ownership, there are a lot of things to like. The team is fun and the stadium is friendly and the parking is free.

Still, there is more convincing to do. The payroll has to increase. The progress has to continue. The pitching has to get better. Fans have to be convinced that in a new home, there is room for hope.

"When the time is right, it has to be something that makes sense for a lot of people, " Sternberg said. "The timing has to be right. We have to have done a lot of things right. People have to trust us."

And when will the time be right?

"You've got me, " Sternberg said.

Here's a guess. Expect the dialogue to be open fairly soon. A year, maybe two, just to feel things out.

Given the economy, expect the financing to be a scramble. Sternberg said he is open to the idea of a partnership in which the team would pay a percentage, which could help things along.

Expect some hand-wringing over whether the stadium is open air, another dome or a retractable roof stadium. Sternberg was quoted in the New York Times article that baseball didn't feel right in a dome, but he added Tuesday that it also didn't feel right in a retractable stadium, or in 91 degrees with humidity, or in the rain.

Expect some noise over where the stadium is built. Some will talk about East Tampa, but that would make it harder for the Rays to break their lease. Pinellas County is an easier sell.

Expect the construction to take a little time.

Me? I expect the Rays to have a new stadium by the 2014 season. I expect it to have a retractable roof that will be open whenever possible. I expect it to be at Progress Energy Park on the downtown St. Petersburg waterfront.

Soon enough, I expect, tickets will be available.

Gary Shelton can be reached at (727) 893-8805.