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Baseball dreams, nightmare reality

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By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001


What is St. Petersburg going to do the day Tropicana Field stands empty?

Turn it into a flea market? A Monday Night Nitro venue? The world's largest bingo hall?

The optimists say this will never happen, that the Devil Rays will never leave, no matter who owns them. They have a contract.

Fine. Then they'll stay and go broke.

If Major League Baseball doesn't fold them first.

The optimists, some of them at this newspaper, were so sure once. Baseball would be the ticket to transform St. Petersburg into something other than an embarrassing (or so they thought) haven for the old.

The dream is dissolving.

Regrettably, however, the stadium bonds are still due.

This is what happens when a community fools itself, when the promoters, the true believers and the leaders of the band forget the meaning of the phrase "reality check."

Reality is, St. Petersburg is not the center of Tampa Bay. Tampa is.

If you wanted more people in the region to identify with the baseball team and attend its games, you'd have put the stadium some place closer to Tampa. That's why West Shore Plaza and the under-construction International Plaza are near the Howard Frankland Bridge -- on the edge of two cities, not deep inside one.

Reality is, we are not L.A. or NYC.

Sears almost certainly sells more work boots in Tampa Bay than Cole-Haan sells loafers.

Reality is, we like Tampa Bay the way it is.

Many of us who came here from some place else picked Tampa Bay over the rest of Florida not only because the living looked easy but because the living looked cheaper. We didn't want another big city. If we had, we'd have moved to Miami.

We wanted a safe, pleasant, adopted hometown.

But the promoters, the true believers and the leaders of the band didn't listen.

They were convinced in St. Petersburg, as they were convinced in Tampa, that the only way to be a major league city was to have a major league team. A headline on the sports page was supposed to translate into a fabulous quality of life.

Many people resist this idea.

But they do not mingle with the leaders of the band.

Just how much they continue to resist was evident in a fight last week in Tampa over what the city was going to do with a chunk of money raised by the tax that also built Raymond James Stadium for Malcolm Glazer.

Mayor Dick Greco wanted the money for a new arts museum and Lowry Park Zoo.

The arts and the animals are far harder to argue against in my book than pro sports, but even that wasn't basic enough for leaders of neighborhood groups.

From one end of Tampa to the other, they wanted the money spent instead on parks, sidewalks, curbs, street lights, drainage, paving.

They lost, but not before the most-mighty mayor had to give a little.

It's amazing what people who have never had cocktails with a bond lawyer or a wealthy arts patron know: These humble projects are, like good schools, what make a community livable.

The sentiment isn't different in Tyrone or Seminole or Lakewood or Palm Harbor.

The Devil Rays were a bet against the future, placed with the shaky capital of the expectations of the promoters, the true believers and the leaders of the band. They gambled that the economics of baseball would never go crazy, that the game was still about peanuts and Cracker Jacks and the umpire's cry, and that the rest of us would just fall in line.

We did not.

Here's an idea. The day Tropicana Field goes dark, turn it into a Town Hall, so we can go practice democracy.

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