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Deal to sell 'Baby Rays' wrapped up

Minor League Baseball buys the team. The Rays will keep their minor-league players.

[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
A sailboat glides across Tampa Bay with Florida Power Park, home of Al Lang Field, in the background Monday.

By BRYAN GILMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 18, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- The minor-league St. Petersburg Devil Rays will leave the city after this season, ending a decades-long tradition of minor-league baseball here.

The major-league Tampa Bay Devil Rays, which own the farm team, have agreed to sell the Class A franchise back to Minor League Baseball to facilitate a realignment, senior vice president John Higgins said Monday.

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"I think the surprise is really that they've stayed here this long," Mayor David Fischer said Monday, pointing out that it is rare for a farm team to play 12 blocks away from its major-league namesake. "It's a challenge to attract people to a minor-league team in a major-league city."

The Class A St. Petersburg Devil Rays of the Florida State League play about 65 scheduled home games at Florida Power Park, home of Al Lang Field, the waterfront stadium that also serves as the spring-training home for the major-league Devil Rays.

"Baby Rays" games, as fans sometimes call them, often attract fewer than 100 fans. But Class A baseball mainly is a training venue for future stars, so low attendance was not really a factor in the decision to remove the franchise, Higgins said.

Minor League Baseball is working on a realignment to ensure that each major-league club has a farm team at each minor-league level. It asked the Rays to sell their high-level A-ball franchise to the league as part of that process, Higgins said.

"We're selling the team to the officials at Minor League Baseball," Higgins said. "They in turn will resell it in another city in another league in another state," likely as a low-level A franchise.

"The whole transaction, the overall thing is being worked out," said Jim Ferguson, spokesman for Minor League Baseball, which has its headquarters in St. Petersburg next door to Florida Power Park. "We are just not in a position to comment on it until that happens."

The Rays will keep their minor-league players, assigning them elsewhere within the organization. The Rays expect to affiliate with another high-level A franchise before next season, Higgins said.

Higgins said Monday the club has thought of selling the minor-league franchise formerly affiliated with the St. Louis Cardinals since buying it in 1996. That franchise held exclusive rights to pro baseball in the area. The Rays bought it mainly to take over that power.

"To help out the Minor League Baseball, we decided we would go ahead and move the process," he said.

The Rays have kept minor-league ball alive in town longer than most people thought they would, Higgins said. He also pointed out that the major-league club has not forced minor-league teams in Clearwater, Dunedin and Tampa to move elsewhere, although they could under the rules of professional baseball.

That leaves plenty of baseball opportunities for area fans, he said.

The city government leases Florida Power Park to the Devil Rays for $1 a year and pays the team $1-million to operate and maintain the facility. Once the Baby Rays leave, the contract specifies that the city pay $101,000 less, city attorney John Wolfe said.

The city receives one-third of the $150,000 yearly naming fee that Florida Power pays. Higgins and Florida Power spokeswoman Melanie Forbrick said Monday that the change will not affect the stadium-naming agreement.

"The naming rights of Florida Power Park were negotiated based on the major-league spring training games, and that is where the majority of the naming value comes from," Forbrick said.

Devil Rays Managing General Partner Vince Naimoli visited Nevada this spring to hear a sales pitch meant to prompt teams to move their spring training there.

But there are no immediate plans for the major-league team to stop holding spring-training games at Florida Power Park, Higgins said.

Should that ever change, the city would find itself wondering what to do with an empty 7,000-seat stadium that until recently housed the only pro baseball games in town, Fischer said.

"If that day ever comes, we will have to assess what we would want to do with that land," Fischer said. "Maybe get rid of the stadium and open it back up as a waterfront park."

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