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Area baseball appetite put to test

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© St. Petersburg Times, published April 27, 2001

Status quo stinks.

I love Hal McRae, figuring him as the Rays manager who will succeed, but Tampa Bay's major-league baseball ownership is a dysfunctional, malfunctioning, hard-to-love mess that so far has proved proficient only at losing games and money.

Word is, the Devil Rays are for sale, but not for move. I can buy that, if not them, unless the franchise price drops to about $87. Surely, with a new investment batch, we'll do better.

Act One has been a calamity.

You could barely get Vince Naimoli and partners into the same room, much less on the same page. Even if, after three-plus seasons, buying the Rays might seem a riskier investment than almost anything in NASDAQ's lineup, I want to believe the sport in our neighborhood is not as dead as Babe Ruth and Judge Landis combined.

What is it with Florida? Are we for spring baseball only, a tradition predominantly supported by winter escapees who come down to get suntans and temporarily roar for hometown Red Sox, Phillies, Yankees or Braves?

Today's evidence says yes.

If we're wobbling with the Devil Rays, in Miami there is full-blown community quiver over the Florida Marlins, who have been warned by commissioner Bud Selig to build a non-football ballpark or that the World Series champions of 1997 will be fleeing faster than snowbirds in May.

Bud the Enforcer, huh?

Maybe it's us. Maybe it's sun-baked Florida sports mentality. Maybe it's us. Maybe it's the evolving game of Aaron, Koufax and Mays. But how disturbing is it to think, if both then Rays and Marlins eventually perish, of the fourth-largest state and its 16-million full timers being stripped of what was once legitimately termed "America's Pastime?"

A lot of us who grew up playing sandlot baseball and memorizing records back to Three-Finger Brown and Cy Young spent much of the 1980s grossly overestimating Tampa Bay's appetite for the game.

I apologize, but don't give up.

After our near-misses during agonizing years of trying to relocate the Twins, White Sox, Mariners and Giants to our area, we would be granted expansionist Devil Rays. We celebrated. We figured crowds of 30,000 were a lock and that baseball talk would be the buzz from Weeki Wachee to Auburndale to Naples.

Hasn't happened.

Tampa Bay's team is into a fourth season of struggling, on the scoreboard and at the gate. Ownership became vastly unpopular with business people, politicians and just plain folks. Leadership was questionable. Tactics often uncertain. Public acceptance more than inadequate

Then there was Tropicana Field, a stadium critics continue to portray as a pro sports purgatory with a lousy address. An attitude that is as wrong and meaningless as the popular 1980s claim in Georgia, that the Braves would never do well as long as they played in scruffy, not-quite-safe downtown Atlanta.

Solutions are obvious. Make the Rays more attractive and more successful. Make baseball the No. 2 sports thing to do in the Tampa Bay community, behind only the football Bucs. I mean, let's be creative but realistic.

Attendance stinks. Tampa Bay's baseball team is kicking away too many games, failing too frequently with its investments in multimillion-dollar athletes and failing to deliver a product that demands -- doesn't beg -- a community's heart, money and sporting mind.

A huge thing is what I call "ego factor." People in any town from here to Seattle get excited when something dynamic develops with one of its sports franchises; something truly big, magnetic and wide-ranging.

Today, my neighbors brag to family and associates across the republic, saying their Buccaneers are hot and fun and on the verge of Super Bowl glory. That can happen with baseball, if it's the Rays and not the Twins beginning a season with a 15-4 record, with Greg Vaughn or Josh Hamilton instead of Mark McGwire going for a home-run high.

Ego factor can save our baseball.

If nothing significant occurs, in performance and/or approach, by season's end the Rays will be averaging 16,000. About half what is needed for financial stability.

I worry about us.

Are we a Podunk of the Pros, a 2-million-plus-strong metro with the smallest of big-league attitudes? Able to become mightily excited only over its NFL team? For years, I've wondered. Can we ever have the stout, fiery sporting mind of a Detroit, a Boston, a Philly or a Cincinnati?

Listen closely during coming hours; in your office or school or shop. See if people are talking with true concern about our Rays and the effects of ownership. Or will it be mere break-time chatter, like discussions on the latest political mess or newest exaggerated TV show?

MLB is an industry that can make itself quite unloveable. At times, about as easy to embrace as a cobra pit. Players make far too much money, for which overzealous and imbalanced team proprietorship is mostly to blame. Too many 10-cent attitudes from $10-million jocks.

All that said, I see baseball as worth saving. Worth chasing, even in this latest moment of Tampa Bay frustration and even ire. Even in '01, you see engaging, exhilarating games being executed in New York, Boston, Denver, Philadelphia, Baltimore, St. Louis, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Seattle, San Francisco, Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta and even Minnesota.

Spare me the continued whining about Tropicana Field. Clam it, please, about the nasty, 30-minute drives from Tampa or Bradenton or New Port Richey to reach the dome in St. Petersburg.

Sometime soon, let's grow up.

Baseball watchers in St. Louis, New York, Boston and a dozen other locales burn an average of 45 to 115 minutes each way to reach stadiums. Can't we be as hearty? As open-minded? As can-do with our sports attitudes?

A guy e-mailed me Thursday, saying he's a baseball nut and the only reason he and pals don't go to Rays games is the Trop. Okay, art lovers, the ballpark is not the Mona Lisa, or Camden Yards or Wrigley Field or Coors or the BOB, but to say it's grossly uncomfortable, forever hopeless and too unreachable ranks somewhere between ignorance and not caring.

Are you getting mad?

I hope so.

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