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How long till Trop is going, going, gone?

Tropicana Field's days may already be numbered as domes face extinction in the era of a retro-ballpark boom.

By BRYAN GILMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 7, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- When the Florida Suncoast Dome opened 10 years ago, it was a modest but state-of-the-art facility.

It had luxury suites to keep a baseball team owner wealthy and a roof to keep its patrons dry and cool.

But today, as the Devil Rays prepare to open just their third season in the renamed Tropicana Field, the dome is already becoming a dinosaur.

Only one other fixed-dome stadium still exists in major league baseball. And the Minnesota Twins want out of it. Newfangled retractable roofed domes are rising around the country and the boom in baseball building is creating retro-outdoor spaces -- not indoor perfection.

It may be an unthinkable question for Pinellas County taxpayers, but it is fair to ask: How long can Tropicana Field hold on?

The team's top executives declined to talk about how long the stadium might meet their needs, referring the question to managing general partner Vince Naimoli. Naimoli did not respond to several requests to be interviewed on the subject.

"Right now we're focusing on the 2000 season," said Devil Rays senior vice president John Higgins.

St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer said that given the 25 years of taxpayer debt remaining on the dome and the remaining 27 years on the team's lease with the city, it's way too soon to even discuss the replacement of Tropicana Field.

"Until you pay your house off, there's not a lot of options whether you're going to take it out or change it," he said. "I would think 20 to 25 years from now people will start to think about it."

That's what they thought in Seattle.

From dome to dust

On March 26, a demolition crew imploded Seattle's mushroom-shaped Kingdome, reducing it to a pile of ragged concrete in just a few seconds, live on the ESPN Classic network.

The Associated Press wrote that the building went from "engineering marvel to anachronistic eyesore in just 24 years."

The image of the pile of rubble could send chills up the spine of every Pinellas County taxpayer. The Kingdome's unpaid debt stands, though the building no longer does. The $127-million will not be paid off for the first 16 years that the Seattle Mariners play at retractable-roof Safeco Field, which cost $517-million.

Could it happen here?

The usable life of the Trop is "going to come down to revenue," said Jim Pieper, an architect with the Ellerbe Becket firm of Kansas City, which designed Phoenix's Bank One Ballpark and Atlanta's Turner Field.

"If you end up in a situation that the rest of the league has another $20- or $30-million worth of revenue stream to buy players, you're going to find yourself in the lower tier and kind of a downward spiral."

To avoid that spiral, two-thirds of the major league teams are likely to be in stadiums younger than Tropicana Field by 2005. Hip new outdoor parks are opening this year in Detroit and San Francisco, joining other new-parks-with-an-old-feel in Atlanta, Denver, Cleveland and Baltimore.

The newest retractable-roof stadium is ready for tonight's home opener in Houston after Seattle's opened midway through last season. Another retractable-roof stadium is under construction in Milwaukee. Other convertible stadiums costing between $265-million and $500-million have been proposed in Miami, Minneapolis and New York.

Pittsburgh and San Diego have outdoor parks under construction. Ground will be broken in Cincinnati soon. Drawings or campaigns for other outdoor stadiums are in the works in Boston, Montreal and Philadelphia.

With complete control of Tropicana Field's luxury suites, parking and concessions, the Devil Rays already have most of the revenue streams those teams are seeking. But there is an undeniable buzz around a new stadium -- a buzz that can turn a ballpark into an attraction, guaranteeing the kind of sellouts Naimoli longs for in Tampa Bay.

So what about adding a retractable roof to Tropicana Field? The grandstands could remain if the fabric roof were removed.

"That would be a cost exercise," Pieper said. "It would probably be cheaper (than building a new retractable-roof stadium), but once again, you are still left with the old stadium underneath it. How much do you dress it up before you start to look at a new facility?"

It would be much cheaper just to build an additional outdoor ballpark than to modify the Trop's roof, he estimated. Early season games outside; midsummer inside.

But the political climate in Tampa Bay seems hostile toward new stadiums or major renovations for the foreseeable future, said Assistant Pinellas County Administrator Rick Dodge, who as an assistant St. Petersburg administrator helped bring the Devil Rays to town.

"There's been a lot, both politically and fan base, for the area to absorb," he said. "Trying to digest three major new facilities: a new arena (Tampa's Ice Palace), a new football stadium and a new baseball facility. I certainly think that the priorities for public investment have moved into other areas, and appropriately so."

Speculative, but practical

"The Florida Suncoast Dome is a practical design dictated by function and economic considerations," read a story in the 1990 St. Petersburg Times special section about the dome opening.

"It is not ornate, harking back to another era with adorned columns supporting classical arches. Nor is it a sandlot, a sentimental stage set for Field of Dreams or The Natural. This dome was built for Florida baseball, not the spring training variety, but for the boys of summer needing refuge from the sweltering heat."

Dodge was St. Petersburg's ambassador for attracting a major-league baseball team. He remembers the decision to build a dome instead of an outdoor park.

The city guessed at the features a team might want, then cut many of them in an effort to keep the stadium project cheap. Originally, city officials investigated possible ways to air-condition an outdoor ballpark, but came up with nothing they thought would work, so they settled on the dome design.

"It's not just the heat, humidity and lightning," Dodge said. "It's the fact that every day there in the summer we have either the threat of showers or showers about 4:30 p.m."

Devil Rays executives echo those sentiments today, pointing out how hot fans got at the last few spring-training games at outdoor Florida Power Park. They describe the discomfort they say Florida Marlins fans must endure at open-air Pro Player Stadium in Miami. Even a retractable dome wouldn't cure the humidity, and would provide only marginal relief from the heat.

"There is no question that major league baseball has to have some type of dome stadium (here)," said Devil Rays general manager Chuck LaMar. "Whether that's a retractable dome stadium or not could be debated."

A good lease

The major reason sports teams want to move into new stadiums is to increase revenue. Controlling a stadium with lots of suites and club seats does that.

The Minnesota Twins, for example, share the Metrodome with the football Vikings. The Twins do think outdoor baseball is better than indoor baseball (even though the season opener would have been canceled because of rain on a 41-degree day).

But the major objective in asking for a new stadium is more revenue.

"All the private suites in the (Metrodome) are controlled by the Vikings," said Dave St. Peter, the Twins' senior vice president of business affairs. "Signage is controlled by the (stadium) commission. We're well below the league average on in-stadium advertising."

The Devil Rays are in much better shape.

The Rays completely control Tropicana Field, paying the city 50 cents per ticket for real estate that costs taxpayers about $13-million per year in debt service. Last year, the team paid about $650,000 from those tickets. Some of that money will be reserved for maintenance and improvements at the stadium.

When the Tampa Bay franchise was awarded in 1995, the club required an $80-million renovation to widen the concourses and add restaurants and shops to the stadium. The cost of the renovation was split between the team and the city.

But when corporations lease a luxury suite, they pay the Rays. Ticket buyers pay the Rays. Concessionaires pay the Rays, and Tropicana Products pays the Rays for the naming rights, although the city gets a $200,000 cut of that payment each year.

New turf, new feel?

Even with plenty of revenue opportunities, the team can't make much money unless lots of fans come to each game. To improve attendance, they are making the stadium feel as much as possible like an outdoor park.

"When I was first hired by (managing general partner) Vince (Naimoli), he said several times it was his desire to bring the outdoors in at Tropicana Field, make it as much like an outdoor ballpark as possible and still have the comfort of 72 degrees," said Rick Nafe, the team's operations vice president.

A velvety new artificial turf is ready for tonight's home opener. From the stands, the FieldTurf, as it is called, looks just like Bermuda sod. Combined with the clay infield, the only one of its kind in baseball, fans may be surprised at how much it looks like grass, even if it smells like new tires.

The team is also embracing the dome's idiosyncrasies to try to generate fan affection for the old ballpark. For instance, power hitters sometimes bounce a ball off the roof support rings.

"At first they were considered a nuisance," Nafe, the operations manager, said. "(Then) we thought otherwise. We think it's kind of a signature to the building."

The team has installed strobe lights around the rings to light them up after a home run. Signs will permanently mark spots where hitters have tagged the rings.

Maybe, just maybe, fans will become as affectionate about the rings as they are about Fenway Park's Green Monster leftfield wall.

The club has streamlined its marketing and is offering more affordable ticket packages. And it now has four power hitters on its roster.

Even Pieper, the stadium architect, says that's more important than architecture.

"The bottom line gets into putting a contender on the field," Pieper said. "When you do that, the fans will come out."

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