Tampa and St. Petersburg Are Ready for Baseball When the Sport Expands

Times Staff Writer

Eighteen major league baseball teams train in Florida and then play all their regular-season games somewhere else. The state, which has a population of almost 12 million, has no major league basketball or hockey franchises, either.

Why can't a state that is filling up with people, has a strong television market and has a climate suitable for baseball get a team of its own?

That's what the people of Florida have long wanted to know. Businessmen in the Tampa-St. Petersburg metropolitan area have been trying to get a franchise for almost 10 years. They have been told to get in line. Baseball has put them on hold.

Although Miami and Jacksonville have far more population than either Tampa or St. Petersburg, the cities on Tampa Bay appear to have a better chance of getting a franchise if baseball ever expands again. As an entry, Tampa-St. Petersburg is the 22nd largest metropolitan area in the country with a population of almost 2 million.

That makes it bigger than the Kansas City and Milwaukee areas, and only Denver-Boulder, among its competitors for a major league franchise, is larger. In the last 10 years, the Tampa-St. Petersburg area has grown by almost 50% and population is still increasing rapidly. It is the nation's 15th largest television market.

But baseball today apparently is not ready to put another team any place, although it would seem reasonable for the National League to have as many franchises as the American League. At the moment, the American League leads, 14 to 12.

At the 1985 winter meeting in San Diego, expansion was discussed, but the 26 owners only agreed to study the need to expand. No commitment was made.

"We see it (expansion) coming in the future," Dodger owner Peter O'Malley said. "But I'm not going to put a timetable on it. It's not fair to cities. It would tend to raise their hopes."

At the 1984 winter meeting, Commissioner Peter Ueberroth had said, "There is no time frame for expansion, but we are likely to move along on this issue before next summer."

Baseball didn't move on the issue, however, probably because it had more important things on its mind, such as labor disputes and drugs.

Baseball seemingly has always been reluctant to expand. Virtually every previous move into a new area was pushed by some kind of pressure. So now the issue remains on the table, probably for at least a couple of years, leaving promoters in such cities as Tampa, St. Petersburg, Denver, Washington, D.C., Buffalo, Phoenix, Indianapolis, Vancouver and Miami frustrated.

"Baseball tells us nothing," said Cedric Tallis, who heads the Tampa Bay Baseball Group.

Ueberroth has issued some guidelines, however. Ideally, a city should have an individual ownership, as opposed to a corporate boss, a privately-owned stadium, preferably designed for baseball only, parking for at least 25% of stadium capacity and a commitment of 10,000 season tickets for the first five seasons.

Tampa is ready to build a $60- to $70-million domed stadium with private funds, Tallis said, but it would be a multi-purpose facility. Nevertheless, Tallis is confident this area will get a franchise. "It is a question of time," he said. "We think we're No. 1."

Florida, in fact, probably will get two teams because, Tallis said, "By the year 2,000, this will be the third largest state."

Tampa is not particular about what kind of club it gets. It will accept an expansion team or an established one looking for a new home. "We would negotiate with an existing franchise," Tallis said.

One stumbling block in this area has been the inability of the two cities to agree on a site for a stadium. Each wants it in its neighborhood, and this squabbling prevents them from approaching baseball with a united front and damages their cause.

St. Petersburg, which has been fighting for a franchise for nine years, has focused on a downtown location near an interstate highway. Tampa has settled on one next to Tampa Stadium, the home of the National Football League's Buccaneers. The new stadium would replace Al Lopez Field, the spring training quarters of the Cincinnati Reds.

St. Petersburg had a better location in mind at one time in an area that would have been more convenient to fans in both cities. Tampa reportedly did not object to it, but when St. Petersburg got the downtown site for $1, an offer it couldn't refuse, its rival went looking for a location of its own.

"We have tried to get together with them, but they are wedded to a location downtown," Tallis said. "We don't think it is accessible enough. They don't have adequate parking and you must go over a bridge to get there."

There are, in fact, four bridges, including three major ones, spanning the bay between the two cities.

Expansion talk has virtually stopped in St. Petersburg, too, said Hubert Mizell, sports editor of the St. Petersburg Times. "It has gone into limbo because of the lack of encouragement from baseball. People got tired of waiting."

But, Mizell also said, "It can be rekindled on short notice if baseball would make a move."

Tallis added: "This is a growing area. There are 3 1/2-million people living within two hours of Tampa. People will not settle for anything less than major league." The nearest franchise, he could have added, is in Atlanta, 500 miles away.

Tampa, which has a larger population than St. Petersburg, 276,000 to 241,000 in 1982, is a commercial and banking center with a budding skyline. It is Florida's leading industrial city and is located on the mouth of the Hillsborough River at the head of Tampa Bay. Teddy Roosevelt trained his Rough Riders here. Three million cigars are made here every day.

Across the bay, St. Petersburg, a booming port as is Tampa, is a more relaxed town. It is the popular home for the "snowbirds," the Northerners and Midwesterners who flock to its sunshine and lovely beaches every winter. It is one of the nation's largest retirement communities. The movie, "Cocoon," was filmed there. The New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals train there.

The tropical climate is ideal in both cities. Average temperatures: spring, 74; summer, 82; fall, 68; winter, 63. Residents pay no state income tax, no inheritance tax and only 5% sales tax.

So far, Tampa has bagged most of the major prizes that have come to the area. It has a big international airport, a $52 million performing arts center, the Busch Gardens and brewery, an NFL franchise and the University of South Florida, which has 28,000 students.

"They are better at getting things done," Mizell said. "Pinellas County (St. Petersburg) has never won a big one."

Tallis, who as a former business manager and vice president of the Angels, helped persuade the city of Anaheim to build a stadium for the team, said Tampa would be ready for a team in two years. "But we cannot build a stadium until we have an occupant."

There is a reason Tampa wants a covered stadium. This is also the "lightning capital" of the U.S.

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