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Bay Devil Rays Tampa
For over a decade, the Tampa/St. Pete area had hoped to woo major-league baseball to the Sunshine State. Yet despite nearly eloping with Minnesota’s Twins, Oakland’s A’s, Chicago’s White Sox, Texas’ Rangers, and San Francisco’s Giants, the region has had to wait until 1998 to field a team of its own.
Baseball first arrived in Tampa/St. Pete as teams began to flock to Florida for spring training. The father of major-league baseball in the area was Al Lang, a Pittsburgh native who had moved to St. Petersburg in 1910 and within a few years had joined the management of the local ballpark. After failing to talk Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss into having his team train at Lang’s stadium (Dreyfuss refused, calling the backwater a "one-tank town") and watching the Chicago Cubs move their spring operation from New Orleans to nearby Tampa, Lang finally convinced Branch Rickey to bring his St. Louis Browns to St. Pete. In anticipation of the team’s arrival, financing was approved for a new ballpark, seating 2,000 fans. The first game at the new field saw the Cubs defeat the "hometown" Browns 3-2, behind a first inning homer by rookie outfielder Cy Williams.
Baseball was an instant hit, and soon became so popular in St. Petersburg that businesses began to close early on weekdays so that fans could attend games. However, Rickey’s players, unable to find any other sources of entertainment (movie theaters closed early, and alcohol was forbidden by town law) were bored silly. Embroiled in a financing dispute, the Browns left after their first year to be replaced by the Philadelphia Phillies, who moved on in 1918. In 1922, the New York Yankees and Boston Braves arrived in St. Petersburg; Babe Ruth, the Yanks’ star attraction, was once chased out of the outfield by alligators. In 1928, the baseball-mad city helped Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert turn a $60,000 spring training profit. The St. Louis Cardinals arrived in town in 1938 and stayed until 1997, at various times sharing the city with the Yankees, Giants, Mets, and the Orioles. Tampa, too, has had its share of spring training tenants, having hosted six teams since the Cubs left after the spring of 1916.
Local interest in bringing a team to the Tampa/St. Pete area first emerged after MLB expanded into Toronto and Seattle in 1977. While attracting major-league teams to the area for the spring was never a problem, luring a team on a permanent basis proved to more problematic. Most of the problems were a result of a lack of cooperation between the Tampa and St. Petersburg municipalities; although it was mutually agreed between the two cities that it was in their best interests to bring major-league ball to the area, Tampa and St. Petersburg’s local sports authorities independently courted dissatisfied major league owners while making plans for separate stadiums.
In 1984, a group of investors known as the "Tampa Bay Baseball Group" (led by businessman Frank Morsani) managed to buy a 42% stake in the Minnesota Twins, hoping to move the team to Tampa. But Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, acting in what he called "the best interests of baseball," pressured the group to sell their share to Carl Pohlad, a local banker who intended to keep the team in the Twin Cities. Tampa was foiled again in 1985, when Oakland A’s president Roy Eisenhardt, after agreeing in principle to sell the team to Morsani’s group for $37 million, decided to keep the team after agreed to a new stadium lease with Oakland’s mayor.
In November 1985, both cities made separate presentations for expansion teams (amidst charges of plagarism) to Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, who was annoyed at the local infighting. However, the rivalry continued. From 1986 onwards, St. Petersburg appeared to be the destination of choice for the Chicago White Sox, who were unhappy with Comiskey Park. The St. Petersburg group went so far as to break ground on the Florida Suncoast Dome in 1988, ostensibly the new home of the White Sox. Their neighbors across the bay steamed, and the Tampa Tribune opined that that the locale of the new stadium "puts one in mind of a particularly pinched Albanian village." However, hopes ended in 1988 when Chicago officials managed to pass financing for a new stadium at the last minute.
Even though the Sox ended up staying in Chicago, the Suncoast Dome was well on its way to being built, effectively ending the long rivalry between the two cities with regards to baseball; it was agreed that any team coming to the area would be housed in the new stadium. However, opportunities evaporated as quickly as they appeared. Morsini’s attempt to buy the Texas Rangers in 1988 was foiled, MLB left the area out of its expansion plans in favor of Miami in 1991, and Mariners owner Jeff Smulyan sold his team to Nintendo in 1992. MLB again rebuffed Tampa Bay in late 1992, when National League owners rejected a proposed deal that would bring the San Francisco Giants to the Suncoast Dome.
Finally, Tampa Bay was awarded an expansion team on March 9, 1995, ending what new owner Vince Naimoli called "a path of ten thousand steps, ten thousand phone calls, ten thousand frustrations." Three years before starting play, the team named Braves executive Chuck LaMar as their general manager; LaMar, charged with the task of building a team from scratch, decided to build his club around veteran cornerstones. To that end, the team signed future Hall-of-Famer Wade Boggs, slugger Paul Sorrento, and pitcher Wilson Alvarez and traded for Tampa Bay native Fred McGriff and Phillies shortstop Kevin Stocker. Larry Rothschild, who had never before managed a game but has always been a well-regarded major-league pitching coach, was named the team’s manager. (JGR)