DIBIASE: Tropicana Field limits Rays success

Justin Dibiase

In the offseason, the Tampa Bay Rays were exorcized of not only the devil but from the bottom of the A.L. East, as well. The artists formerly known as the Devil Rays have risen from the depths of the American League and have transformed themselves into the leaders in a division that includes the powerhouse Yankees and Red Sox. The little engine that could continues to roar toward October, but Rays’ fans should relish every moment of the ’08 season because history could repeat itself, and this magical emergence may be over before Tampa Bay fans blink their collective eyes.

The Rays’ season goes against logic. How could a team with one of the lowest payrolls and revenues play in a city of only 250,000 people and win in a sport with no salary cap? Teams that have been trying for decades to put a winner on the field have failed time in and time out. Since 1910, the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies have one World Series win between them (Phillies, 1980). Meanwhile, the Florida Marlins have won the World Series twice since their inaugural season in 1993. Things like this do not occur by accident. The Rays have been preparing and building toward this season with one of the best management groups in all of baseball.

General Manager Andrew Friedman has done a terrific job following the blueprint for success in a small market. Friedman has used the Rays’ farm system to build a true contender. Cheap young studs along with a few experienced veterans have led the Rays’ emergence. Rocco Baldelli, Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria, James Shields and B.J. Upton have all come up from the Rays’ farm system and are now integral parts of the team. Their 2008 salaries total is over $4 million less than what the Los Angeles Dodgers are paying dud outfielder Andruw Jones to sit in the dugout and spit sunflower seeds. Friedman has surrounded his young studs by veteran presences like Cliff Floyd and Troy Percival.

The Rays could be walking in the footsteps of the in-state Florida Marlins of 2003. The Marlins were at the bottom of the N.L. East in 2002. They developed young talent through their deep farm system and rode young players into the playoffs and eventually to a World Series victory in 2003, despite a tiny payroll. These young players include names like Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett, Miguel Cabrera, Luis Castillo, Derrick Lee, Carl Pavano, Brad Penny and Dontrelle Willis. The Marlins also surrounded their youngsters with veterans like Jeff Conine, Lenny Harris, Ivan Rodriguez and Ugueth Urbina. Sound familiar? It gets better. Only a few of the young players mentioned remained with the Marlins due to salary reasons, and the team has been out of the postseason since that time. Like the Rays, the Marlins called upon HOK Sport to design their own new stadium to replace Dolphin Stadium, but Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria is currently locked in a fierce legal battle over the new stadium.

In 10 seasons, the Rays haven’t finished better than fourth place in their division. They currently sit at 29th in terms of payroll among major league teams (only the Marlins are below them). If they truly want their winning ways to continue, the Rays owner Stu Sternberg needs to open his wallet. Friedman has done a tremendous job in locking up the young Rays talent, but most of these contracts are back-loaded with club options for the final years of the contracts. This means that though affordable now, by the end of their contracts, the players may be too expensive to keep. In small-market baseball fashion, these contracts will be dumped to a larger market team in exchange for more young prospects, and the baseball circle of life will spin madly on.

The Rays, however, are doing their best to change that possibility. Even with all this winning, the Rays are still only attracting a measly 21,000 fans to each home game. This can be contributed to their uninviting, domed home stadium Tropicana Field, which looks more like a run-down mall than a ballpark in the concourse. Sternberg and other Rays officials have been working diligently, trying to get the green light for a new downtown St. Petersburg Rays ballpark.

Designers HOK Sport have developed the concept designs for an absolutely stunning $450 million jewel of a stadium, but it is now in the hands of the Rays to find the financing for the stadium. Sternberg is willing to shell out as much as $150 million for the project but is seeking contributions from the city, the sale of Tropicana Field and other means of funding the upstart team.

The project, which was hoping to break ground in May 2009, has been delayed indefinitely as the Rays look for alternate locations and financing options for the park. The Rays cannot make St. Petersburg a large baseball market. What they can do, however, is make the city a more pleasing place to watch or play a game. The way to do that is to build the stadium.

If the Rays do end up building the new stadium, the team just may find itself on top of the baseball standings for many years to come. However, if the plans fall through, the Tampa Bay Rays could find themselves back in the cellar of the division, revenues and payroll rankings faster than you can say “Tropicana Field.”


Justin DiBiase is a senior civil engineering major from Franklinville, N.J. He can be reached at [email protected].