Joe Henderson: Tampa Bay Rays are winning, fun. Will it matter? - Florida Politics

Joe Henderson: Tampa Bay Rays are winning, fun. Will it matter?

It is nearly mid-September and the Tampa Bay Rays are playing meaningful baseball games. They still have an outside shot of making the playoffs.

Being the wise baseball sage that I am, I certainly saw this success coming after the club ran off all its high-priced talent in an offseason purge that at the time looked, walked and smelled like a complete tank job.

Oh, who am I kidding? I thought they’d lose 100 games, minimum — what with playing a bunch of kids and that wacky pitching plan where certain games are designated as “bullpen” outings.

But it has worked. They’ve been beating good teams, bad teams, and in between.

Even more than that, they’re fun to watch.

So, you might think that is a good thing for those in Tampa and Hillsborough County who are itching to build the Rays a glittering new stadium in Ybor City priced at, gulp, $892 million.

If the team is young and good, it could help build enthusiasm for a move from St. Petersburg to a new home just off downtown Tampa. Before that happens though, a lot of hard questions need to be answered.

The need is obvious.

Start with this number: 10,654.

That was the announced attendance for Wednesday afternoon’s game at Tropicana Field when the Rays beat division-leading Cleveland 3-1 behind terrific young pitcher Blake Snell. The Rays once again are last in the American League in attendance by a lot. Winning hasn’t made any difference at the turnstiles.

They will break a six-year streak of finishing last in the majors this season in attendance only because the Miami Marlins blew up their franchise and fans reacted accordingly. That will help elevate the Rays to 29th overall instead of their customary 30th.

Let’s have a parade.

Would it be any better in Tampa?

Well yeah, I think it would be. I think it would a lot better, given that downtown Tampa is the geographic center of the Bay area. The local business community has been out beating the drums for corporate support for a stadium, which is something the Rays sorely lack in St. Petersburg.

That support could include suite sales, season tickets, and naming rights. It is not insignificant. They say they’re doing well but won’t offer many specifics. And while Rays owner Stuart Sternberg has said that’s a fine and necessary step, he, too, continues to be coy about how much he would be willing to pay.

This is starting to look like some middle-school dating ritual.

Is this a good time to mention that earlier this year the 30 club owners received a reported $50 million each from the sale of BAM media, a digital company spun off from MLB Advanced Media?

Well, you can bet a lot of things are going to be mentioned between now and when the final financing plan is presented for public scrutiny. It is going to be an issue in local political races in November, particularly in the Hillsborough County Commission races.

Commissioner Ken Hagan is running for re-election to a fifth term against Democrat Angela Birdsong in November. Hagan has been most identified with the stadium issue but hasn’t been a fountain of information about how talks with the Rays are proceeding.

Are they proceeding?

I assume so, but who knows? This whole stadium plan seems shrouded in mystery.

When it is eventually revealed, I promise you this: Unless Sternberg announces he will write a check for the full amount, which he won’t, opponents will go buggy crazy and politicians will ponder their political future as they figure out how to vote.

Meanwhile, hey … that’s a really fun team are running out there.

The Tampa Bay Rays are good. They’re young.

They’re winning.

Will it matter? Too soon to say.

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.
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