Outside ballpark gates, schools of fans wait patiently for autographs. Inside, millionaire outfielders and rookie shortstops stretch languidly on the grass.
Once again major league baseball has come to Central Florida for the rites of spring training. And under the cobalt-blue skies of the Sunshine State, it’s easy to believe that all’s right with the world.
On this morning, Jerry A. Oliver stands on the mezzanine level of a $138-million stadium looking out over what was designed to be one of the finest baseball facilities in the land.
But instead of the boys of summer, what Oliver sees on the bare cement floor of the Florida Suncoast Dome are a couple of custodians sweeping up the remnants of a home and garden show. Later in the day, he will supervise the setup for this week’s event, the third annual “world’s largest garage sale.”
“I wish it was baseball, but it isn’t,” says Oliver, the dome’s general manager, echoing a lament that can be heard throughout this city.
In baseball circles, St. Petersburg and the Tampa Bay area are Mudville, and in its joyless, 10-year quest to land a baseball franchise, the area has struck out again. After coming tantalizingly close to luring the Giants out of San Francisco last fall, the area’s bid failed at the last minute.
The local residents are taking it hard. Dave Feaster, chairman of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce baseball council: “To a person, we feel we were done wrong.”
Fred Tirabassi, owner of the Kopper Kitchen restaurant: “People are bitter. They’ve been yo-yo’d over this thing. No one is going to get their hopes up again.”
The Suncoast Dome, surrounded by acres of empty parking lots, stands as both the symbol of the city’s frustration and as a massive monument to wishful thinking. After city officials had been jilted several times, Dodge says, former baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn wooed them with what would become known as the “Field of Dreams” promise: “If you build it, they will come.”
St. Pete did. Baseball didn’t.
Says St. Petersburg assistant city manager Rick Dodge: “If we had known then how baseball might deal with the situation, I don’t see how anyone could have advised the city to proceed with the stadium. We played by the rules, did what we were told.
“The irony is so rich. Nobody has shown more support for baseball.”
In fact, the Tampa Bay area, the 14th largest media market in the United States, is baseball mad. As the local owners group rounded up $115 million to bring the Giants from San Francisco, more than 30,000 fans sent in $50 each to reserve season tickets.
Now, anger at what most people here see as a betrayal by baseball is just as fervid. Lawsuits have been filed against the city of San Francisco and the Giants’ owners. Without prompting, outraged fans have mailed in cash and checks totaling $300,000 to pay for legal actions.
Last Thursday, a bill co-sponsored by Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), the grandson of the fabled owner of the Philadelphia Athletics, to lift baseball’s antitrust exemption was introduced in the Senate.
Singled out for especially venomous thoughts in Tampa Bay is H. Wayne Huizenga, the Blockbuster video chain mogul and owner of the Florida Marlins, Miami’s new National League club. Although Huizenga has said that he voted in favor of the Tampa Bay bid, Dodge and others think that he worked behind the scenes to ensure that the Marlins would have no Florida competition.
In addition to cutting up their Blockbuster membership cards, thousands of local fans have vowed never to read a Marlins box score, let alone attend a game in Miami.
St. Petersburg has hosted spring training since 1914, but landing a major league franchise would inject a projected $100 million into the local economy, spark the revitalization of downtown and bury once and for all the city’s reputation as merely a retirement haven.
Baseball will come, insists Dodge. He predicts that a big-league team will move into the Suncoast Dome this decade, or “as soon as it makes economic sense to 28 owners.”
In the meantime, there is some action in the Suncoast Dome. In the three years since its opening, the multipurpose stadium with the Teflon roof has hosted a Davis Cup tennis match, National Basketball Assn. exhibition games and professional hockey and is the home of the Tampa Bay Storm of the Arena Football League. Several music superstars also have performed here.
Without the baseball franchise for which it was designed, the Dome is chiefly a venue for low-budget trade shows, conventions and tractor pulls. The city-owned stadium operates at a $1.5-million annual deficit, subsidized by the taxpayers. And that’s no more popular with the citizenry than is Huizenga.
“Without baseball, the place is a white elephant,” Tirabassi says.
Oliver knows. “This is a state-of-the-art baseball facility with 42,000 seats,” he says. “I came here to manage a baseball facility, and certainly everybody wants to see baseball in here. But after all we’ve been through, I don’t think we’ll believe we have baseball until we hear the crack of the bat.”
Until then, the Dome is available. The $12,500-a-day rent gets you up to 50,000 seats, 4,200 parking spaces and air conditioning. Not included are ticket takers, ushers and hot dog vendors.