Joe Henderson, Author at Florida Politics

Joe Henderson

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including the last nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. I covered a large variety of things, primarily in sports but also including hard news. The two intertwined in the decade-long search to bring Major League Baseball to the area. I also was the City Hall reporter for two years and covered all sides of the sales tax issue that ultimately led to the construction of Raymond James Stadium. I served as a full-time sports columnist for about 10 years before moving to the metro news columnist for the last 4 ½ years. I have numerous local, state and national writing awards. I have been married to my wife, Elaine, for nearly 35 years and have two grown sons – Ben and Patrick.

A Donald Trump administration; Too late America, we’re doing this

You ever talk yourself into trying one of those amusement park thrill rides, the kind that turns you upside down and inside out?

You told yourself a million times you would never ride that thing, but here you are, strapped into your seat as your car reaches the top of that terrifying first drop.

Just before you slip over the edge, you think, “What have I done?”

Too late now. You’re doing this.

And so, America, welcome to the Trump administration.

Polls show considerable buyer’s regret since the election in November, as his approval ratings are at historic lows for an incoming president. Once he puts his hand on the Bible and repeats the 35-word presidential oath, Donald J. Trump will officially be the leader of the free world.

Too late now, America. We’re all doing this.

Let’s see if what he promised matches the reality of his term. Here are a few of the biggies, in order of the likelihood of the promises being kept.

REPEAL AND REPLACE OBAMACARE: That will happen. That process is well underway. But replacing it with “something great” that accomplishes Trump’s stated goal of insuring everyone? That will be President Trump’s first and maybe biggest test of leadership against a hawkish Congress controlled by his own Republican Party.

Probability of repeal and replace: 100 percent.

Probability that a majority of Americans will accept it when they realize their favorite part of Obamacare no longer exists: 10 percent.

APPOINT A CONSERVATIVE JUDGE TO THE SUPREME COURT: Book it. Probability: 100 percent.

DEPORT 11 MILLION ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS: That was a promise that helped Trump skyrocket with voters who blame illegal immigrants for everything except global warming (because that’s a hoax, right?). Since the cost of fulfilling that promise has been estimated at $600 billion minimum, there zero probability of that happening. But … there are reports that the new administration is ready to immediately implement what surely will be a selective high-profile sweep of illegals. Maybe that will be enough for Trump to declare victory.

OVERHAUL THE VETERANS ADMINISTRATION: I think if that could be done, President Obama would have accomplished it. The disasters at Veterans Affairs were one of Obama’s greatest failings. Trump will take a swing. Heads will roll. Heads should roll, and we know how good he is at saying “You’re fired.” So, yeah: Probability he will try: 100 percent. Probability he will succeed: 30 percent.

THE WALL: Yes, that wall he promised along the southern border between the U.S. and Mexico can be built. He can back up his vow to make Mexico pay for it by deductions in foreign aid, tariffs on Mexican imports, and so on. But governing is different from campaigning. I don’t think this is a sure thing. Probability: 80 percent.

OVERHAUL TRADE AGREEMENTS TO PUT AMERICA FIRST: Trump’s tough talk on this issue probably won him the election by appealing to disenfranchised Midwestern voters. But every action triggers a reaction, and just ditching things like NAFTA and imposing massive tariffs on imports could send the economy over the edge of our mythical thrill ride. This likely will be one where Trump gets a couple of treaties rewritten and declares victory. But for the kind of impact he envisions and promised? Probability: 40 percent.

ALSO, THESE: Prosecute Hillary Clinton (zero percent) … Allow waterboarding and other means of torture slipped to 2 percent after incoming defense secretary James Mattis told Trump it doesn’t work … Leave Social Security and Medicare alone (95 percent). … Cut taxes (100 percent) … Reduce the national debt (zero percent; can’t cut taxes, increase infrastructure and other spending, leave social safety nets alone, and expect to reduce the national debt).

And finally …

BE UNPREDICTABLE: Even Vegas wouldn’t offer book on this one. Probability: Infinity to the 10-millionth power.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos could mean more Florida charter schools, a lot more

Betsy DeVos, whose children never attended public schools, may soon lead the nation’s Department of Education. Assuming she is confirmed, care to take a guess what Florida public education will look like four years from now?

Perhaps former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who is DeVos’ biggest cheerleader, can provide some insight. He wrote a stirring endorsement of her in Tuesday’s USA Today, coinciding with her hearing before a U.S. Senate confirmation panel.

“Instead of defending and increasing Washington’s power, Betsy will cut federal red tape and be a passionate advocate for state and local control of schools. More importantly, she will empower parents with greater choices and a stronger voice over their children’s education,” Bush wrote.

“In the two decades that I have been actively involved in education reform, I have worked side-by-side with Betsy to promote school choice and put the interests of students first. I know her commitment to children, especially at-risk kids, is genuine and deep.”

Let’s dissect those words.

First, the biggest federal overreach in education was the No Child Left Behind program signed into law in 2002 by Jeb’s brother, President George W. Bush. It had strong bipartisan support in Congress and from the business community, which argued that U.S. public school students were falling behind those from other nations in math and science.

In the name of “accountability” for schools, NCLB mandated a battery of standardized tests for students. It also allowed students from poor-performing schools to transfer to ones with better overall test results.

There were other federal demands on local school districts, including offering free tutoring to students in need. Of course, the money that was supposed to pay for that never quite materialized in the federal budget, and many schools still struggle to provide that service today.

“Accountability” testing has become a raw spot for teachers, who can face reprisals if low-performing don’t improve.

By not “defending and increasing Washington’s power” we would assume DeVos would defer more education power to Florida. That may not be much help. Besides the federal mandates, Florida tacked on many other tests, leading to teacher burnout and complaints they were only “teaching the test” to bored students while Republicans touted charter schools as the answer.

In the next four years, Florida undoubtedly will have many more than the 652 charter schools currently serving more than 270,000 students. That is an increase of 134 charters and about 90,000 more students since Rick Scott took over as governor in 2011.

Public school teachers and administrators complain loudly that some of those charters don’t have to meet the same standards they do and don’t have to accept problem students.

Charter advocates counter that many financially secure people already can (and do) opt out of public education by sending their kids to expensive private schools.

Tampa’s highly regarded Jesuit High School, for instance, charges nearly $15,000 in tuition, plus other fees. Tampa Prep High School charges more than $22,000 a year in tuition, although it also offers needs-based financial help for those who can’t afford to pay full freight.

Offering charter alternatives to students who couldn’t think about getting into schools like that is only fair, advocates say.

It’s a bedrock Republican ideal: private business is better than government programs, and private education (or charter schools) can be a good alternative to public schools in many cases.

Class, let’s review: School “choice” means less money for public education. Hillsborough County, the nation’s ninth-largest school district, already is grappling with severe budget problems. That presumably will get worse.

We will see more private charter schools – probably a lot more.

That will be done over the wailing and teeth-gnashing of Florida Democrats (like that matters, given their general impotency these days) and the state teachers’ union.

Florida Republicans will celebrate that victory with particular vigor.

 

Stephen Bittel for Florida Democrats, what do you have to lose?

Over the weekend, Florida Democrats elected Miami rich guy Stephen Bittel to lead their party. The choice was controversial and left many members screaming that Bittel is the wrong man at the wrong time.

They have their reasons, I guess.

But, let me ask a simple question:  Whom would be the right person?

The political cosmos has been trying to send a message for years to Florida Democrats. They haven’t been listening.

They have lost five consecutive races for governor (or, put another way, they haven’t been in control of the governor’s mansion in this century). Republicans also control both chambers of the Legislature. Republicans pass whatever laws they want, many of which trample on Democratic ideals. All the Dems have been able to say is, “May I have another?”

This has happened despite the fact Democrats have long held the lead in the number of registered voters in Florida (that number, by the way, is shrinking).

It takes a special something to have turned such an advantage into what is essentially political irrelevance in Tallahassee. Democrats used to console themselves because they delivered the state’s electoral votes to Barack Obama during his presidential campaigns, but they couldn’t even keep that trend going last November against Donald Trump.

So, to borrow Trump’s own slogan and apply it to Bittel: What have you got to lose? At least the guy seems to have some energy a willingness to engage in the fight.

“Contentious elections are reflective that there are Democrats all over Florida that are passionate, committed to coming together, moving forward together to win elections. So contentious is good. It means you care,” Bittel said after beating four other candidates with more established track records.

He has a point there. Florida Democrats have “contentious” down to a science. What they haven’t shown is any evidence that they have a realistic game plan for returning some political balance to the state.

Bittel made his mark by donating and raising large amounts of money for Democratic candidates. While he told reporters Saturday at the Democratic gathering in Orlando that he is not a billionaire, as was reported, he obviously is a person of substantial wealth and energy.

Democrats? Listen up: You need energy. You need passion. You need a sense of purpose. And most of all you need to explain, in clear words, why you’re better for the state than Republicans.

Democrats deluded themselves into believing voters would never elect Rick Scott, but they didn’t understand the beautiful simplicity of his “Let’s Get To Work” message. They talked themselves again into believing that surely voters wouldn’t re-elect Scott.

Now, Scott likely is coming for Bill Nelson’s U.S. Senate seat in a couple of years, and in Adam Putnam Republicans appear to have a strong gubernatorial candidate ready to make his run. This kind of ballot box domination should send a message that doing things the same ol’ way is a losing strategy for Democrats.

So when Bittel talks about greatly expanding the staff at the state Democratic headquarters in Tallahassee and, as reported in FloridaPolitics.com, promising to “ …  grow this party to a size and strength that has never been seen before,” Democrats should be at least a little invigorated.

That is, assuming they still remember what that feels like.

Marco Rubio quickly keeps promise to stand up to Donald Trump in Senate

Marco Rubio promised during his campaign for re-election to the U.S. Senate that he would stand up to Donald Trump when necessary.

“Necessary” didn’t take long to arrive.

It came Wednesday during a confirmation hearing for Rex Tillerson, Trump’s choice for Secretary of State.

Rubio responded with what I thought was his finest hour as the junior senator from Florida. He showed plenty of backbone, conviction and passion in relentlessly hammering Tillerson about his stance (or non-stance) on Russia’s appalling human rights record.

It was a bold gambit, but it’s one I believe Rubio made on principle. In so doing he risks the wrath of the incoming president, not to mention his own Republican Party.

That showed a truckload of gumption.

Now, I may have to amend the previous sentence if after all that Rubio toes the GOP line and votes to confirm Tillerson. I can’t imagine that happening now, though, and as it stands now, Rubio could be the swing vote that would lead the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee to turn thumbs-down on Tillerson.

That wouldn’t necessarily doom his appointment, as the full Senate could confirm him with a simple majority vote. Republicans hold a 52-46 edge there (with two independents, who caucus with Democrats).

Taking the political intrigue out of it for a second, though, Rubio’s action during Wednesday’s hearing backed up his full-throated condemnation of nations like Russia and Cuba who rule with torture, murder and a disregard for human life.

I haven’t agreed with Rubio’s persistent hard-line stance on Cuba, mostly because I believe the U.S. policy of sanctions has succeeded only in bringing misery to the Cuban people. But there is no such ambiguity with what’s happening with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Rubio placed himself squarely on the front line in the battle to oppose him.

When Tillerson said “I would not reach that conclusion” after Rubio asked if the nominee considers Putin a war criminal, what followed was a statement of fact that was a stinging indictment of what appears to be president-elect Trump’s position.

“Let me describe the situation in Aleppo, and perhaps it will help you reach that conclusion,” Rubio said. “In Aleppo, Mr. Putin has directed his military to conduct a devastating campaign (assisting the Syrians). He has targeted schools, markets, and other civilian infrastructure that has resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians.

“This is not the first time Mr. Putin has been involved in campaigns of this kind. Based on all that, and what’s publicly in the record about what has happened in Aleppo … you are still not prepared to say Vladimir Putin and his military have violated the rules of war and conducted war crimes in Aleppo?”

Tillerson said those were “serious charges” and he needed more information.

Rubio shot back, “It should not be hard to say that Vladimir Putin and his military have conducted war crimes in Aleppo. It is never acceptable, you would agree, for a military to specifically target civilians, which is what’s happening there. … I find it “discouraging” your inability to cite that…”

But he wasn’t done, following up with, “Do you believe Vladimir Putin and his cronies are responsible for the murder of countless dissidents, journalists and political opponents?”

Tillerson said didn’t have enough information, so Rubio gave him some.

“Are you aware that people who oppose Vladimir Putin wind up dead all over the world – poisoned, shot in the back of the head? Do you think that is coincidental, or do you that it is possible – or likely, as I believe – that it was part of an effort to murder his political opponents?”

Tillerson said he needed more information.

“None of this is classified, Mr. Tillerson. These people are dead,” Rubio said.

It was a promise kept by Rubio. In Washington, that is especially unexpected and refreshing.

Conservatives bashing ‘Hollywood’ depends on which actors do the talking

Meryl Streep must have known what she was in for when she spoke out against Donald Trump at the Golden Globe Awards on Sunday night.

Conservatives were outraged that, during her acceptance speech for a lifetime of excellence in Hollywood, she referenced Trump’s mocking of a disabled reporter during the campaign. Trump, indeed, emphasized the “bully” part of his public “pulpit” many times during his successful bid for the White House.

Streep used her pulpit to call him out.

“And this instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing,” she said to a nationwide audience.

Trump responded, as he does, with a tweet, calling her “overrated” (he’s wrong) and a “Hillary flunky.” That was the bugle charge for his supporters to trot the same “Hollywood elite” rap they use whenever someone in Streep’s position takes advantage of a moment to espouse a personal view.

Meghan McCain, daughter of U.S. Sen. John McCain, took to Twitter herself to note: “This Meryl Streep speech is why Trump won. And if people in Hollywood don’t start recognizing why and how — you will help him get re-elected.”

Maybe. We’ll see how it looks in four years.

While we wait, though, it’s worth examining that whole “Hollywood elite” business.

I mean, didn’t Ronald Reagan come out of Hollywood?

I seem to recall an appearance by Clint Eastwood with an empty chair at the 2012 Republican convention in Tampa. I think he qualifies as Hollywood upper crust.

Didn’t Arnold Schwarzenegger make a few big movies before becoming the governor of California?

Jon Voight? I remember talking to with him at that GOP convention. He is conservative to the core.

When he served as president of the NRA, Charlton Heston wrote the 11th Commandment when he challenged Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore to pry his gun “from my cold, dead hands.”

John Wayne was Republican. Loved him in “The Alamo.”

Fred Thompson? Before he became the GOP senator from Tennessee, he was in “Die Hard 2” and “Crimson Tide.”

Bob Hope? Republican.

Chuck Norris? Republican.

Vince Vaughn? Republican.

Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Sly Stallone. GOP-times-three.

There are plenty more examples. Google tells a different tale than what conservatives were sharing on social media Monday.

To be fair, Hollywood — like all of California — trends liberal. No one is saying otherwise.

Liberals got a good laugh at Eastwood because what he did during the convention was, well, ridiculous. They laughed at Reagan, too, but I think the Gipper won that round. I don’t think anyone dared laugh at John Wayne. You can laugh at Chuck Norris if you want; I’ll call him sir.

Back to Ms. Streep.

She is an amazing actress and for Trump to say otherwise, especially in the way he did, simply proved her point about his bullying tactics.

But the same conservatives who say they don’t care what Hollywood folk say about anything would have stopped traffic to listen if Reagan, Eastwood or any of those others I mentioned were doing the talking.

‘Little’ Marco Rubio holds big cards in Rex Tillerson confirmation

We all remember when presidential candidate Donald Trump stuck Republican opponent Marco Rubio with the label of “Little Marco.”

It’s hard to say if that insult led directly to Trump’s sizable thumping of Rubio in the Florida primary, but it’s worth mentioning because “Little” Marco holds perhaps the biggest card in Trump’s push to confirm Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State.

Rubio sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where Tillerson is expected to appear Wednesday as part of the formal confirmation process. It’s a 21-person committee, with Republicans holding a one-seat majority.

It’s shaping up as a showdown between principle and politics, and the spotlight is on Rubio.

All 10 Democrats are likely to vote against Tillerson, given the ExxonMobil CEO’s close business ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin. That relationship has been a problem for Rubio as well, a fact underscored when Florida’s junior senator tweeted last month: “Being a ‘friend of Vladimir’ is not an attribute I am hoping for from a Secretary of State.”

When Trump tabbed Tillerson to what arguably is the most important non-elected position in his cabinet, Rubio responded with a statement that read in part, “I have serious concerns about his nomination. The next secretary of state must be someone who views the world with moral clarity, is free of potential conflicts of interest, has a clear sense of America’s interests, and will be a forceful advocate for America’s foreign policy goals.”

For good measure, Rubio also has called Putin a “gangster and a thug.”

If Rubio breaks ranks with fellow Republicans, that would likely mean the committee would reject Tillerson’s nomination by an 11-10 vote. It still would be subject to a full Senate vote, but the impact of a thumbs-down in a GOP-controlled committee could be enough to hand Trump a stinging political defeat.

While Rubio has promised to give the nominee a thorough and fair hearing in the committee, you have to wonder what Tillerson could say that would sway his opinion. Rubio certainly has been feeling the heat in advance of the hearing, including a call from former Vice President Dick Cheney urging him to cast a “yea” vote.

A “no” vote likely would make him a pariah with a new president who has been known to hold a grudge.

Voting to confirm, in view of his past statements on Tillerson, could bring an avalanche of condemnation from critics who would label him as Trump’s puppet – and, by extension, Putin. That could make it difficult to take seriously anything Rubio says going forward.

This is shaping up as the most significant moment in Rubio’s political career. How he handles himself in this hearing could cast his image for years to come.

 

If Republicans have a better idea to replace Obamacare, let’s hear it

I have a friend who has owned a small restaurant in Tampa for decades. He voted for Donald Trump for two important reasons: Trump isn’t Hillary Clinton, and he hates Obamacare.

Let me rephrase that: He doesn’t like Hillary, but he loathes Obamacare with unyielding venom. Keeping up with its requirements, he said, has been an expensive nightmare. He wants it gone.

Today.

This is a kind and decent man who is all-in on goodness. He is charitable, law-abiding and is happy to lend a hand. So, over several plates of bacon and eggs at his joint, I have deduced that his position can best be summed up like this: He wants his employees and anyone in need to have access to health care, but he despises the bureaucracy and costs imposed by Obamacare.

It looks like he is going to get his way as the Republican-controlled Congress is tripping over itself to defund, defeat and dethrone the signature accomplishment of President Barack Obama’s administration. But then what?

Well, to borrow the infamous quote from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from 2010 when the Affordable Care Act was coming to life, “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of the controversy.”

That quote was taken out of context and fed to Pelosi for breakfast, lunch and dinner, along with Obama’s vow that people could keep the doctors they liked. That became the rallying cry for opponents, but Trump now basically is saying the same thing – promising Americans that law will be replaced with something great.

While we wait for greatness, consider these Florida statistics from a recent federal Health and Human Services report.

— An estimated 132,000 young Floridians have been able to keep insurance by the provision allowing them to stay on their parents’ policies until age 26.

— It claims premiums grew 1.3 percent annually from 2010-2015, far less than the 8.2 percent of the previous decade.

Hold on just a minute there.

The HHS apparently forgot to include the estimated 25 percent premium hike for Floridians this year. There are many factors for that, especially the fact that far fewer people enrolled in Obamacare than the government projected and fewer insurers are offering coverage now that federal backstops against financial losses have been phased out.

All this sets up as a trap for Republicans in their zeal to end the program, though.

With lower enrollments than expected and the end to the safety net for insurance companies, any plan Republicans pass to replace the ACA probably will come up short of what Obamacare offered.

I can see the attack ads now when congressional seats are up for grabs in two years.

Incoming HHS head Tom Price of Georgia, a ferocious critic of Obamacare, has proposed a plan that would include a series of tax credits, health savings accounts, state grants and so on. Analysists have said Price’s proposal, if adopted, could mean reduced coverage and much higher premiums, especially for older Americans.

Republicans have the votes, for now, to move ahead with something. What that is, though, is anyone’s guess – especially Republicans. After barking their hatred for Obamacare for six years, they have, in the words of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, become “the dog that caught the car.”

Now what?

I know my friend would say to get rid of Obamacare and we’ll out the consequences later.

My take is a little different. I know this makes some people cringe, but I think health care is a right in a civilized society. It’s not something only those who can afford it should have. If Republicans have a better idea, let’s hear it.

After all, as Schumer said, they caught the car. They need to do more than just pee on the tires.

 

Pro sports franchises: Build your own stadium, ballpark, or arena

Mitch Perry’s story Tuesday on FloridaPolitics.com about the bill filed by state Sen. Tom Lee to dismantle state’s Sports Development Program triggered an instant thought: Well, forget about a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays.

I followed up with a call to Lee, a Republican from Brandon, and asked if my thought about the Rays was on the mark.

“This won’t preclude the Rays or any other franchise from coming to the Legislature and asking for help with a stadium, but they will have to stand on their merits,” he said.

“They won’t be able to hide behind a program designed to give an automatic seal of approval to these sports franchises. There are ways government can invest in these big projects without being a donor to the team.”

Mark that last sentence down. It may be the only way for pro franchises in Florida to get a sympathetic ear from Tallahassee lawmakers.

Big stadium projects bring lots of associated costs – road construction, sewer upgrades, water and so on.

“Those things are in government’s wheelhouse,” Lee said. “Those things stay behind even if the sports team leaves town.

“This specific program was a ruse to give the Legislature cover to make it look like they were doing a hard analysis on the revenues of these teams. Why do they get this break? Because they’re major donors and have big-time lobbyists representing them.”

The gist of that sentiment is this simple message to team owners: Build your own stadium, ballpark or arena. If you need help with access roads and other infrastructure costs, we can talk.

The program Lee wants to eliminate was a pet project for Gov. Rick Scott in 2014. It allowed team owners to apply for a rebate of increases in sales taxes if revenues jumped because of stadium upgrades. The maximum amount was $3 million for up to 30 years.

“It became the JumboTron amendment,” Lee said. “Or the Wrestlemania amendment. There was one proposal to improve a facility so it could host a special event. That turned out to be Wrestlemania. In Jacksonville, they wanted a rebate because they were adding JumboTrons to the stadium.

“Well, if a guy owns a Subway shop and he adds a drive-thru and his revenues go up 20 percent because of that, does he get a rebate on the increase? This was found money for the team owners.”

These are wealthy franchises, it should be noted. The late Malcolm Glazer purchased the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1996. Forbes magazine estimates the Bucs are now worth $1.8 billion. The Miami Dolphins are worth $2.375 billion, while the Jacksonville Jaguars are a reported $1.95 billion.

“With what I see in education and exploding costs in delivering health care to the neediest Floridians, it’s hard to justify spending tax dollars on these sports teams,” Lee said. “That doesn’t mean that we don’t like to have them, or that they don’t enhance a community. I believe they do.

“But we have to have priorities in government. While these teams are wonderful amenities, they do essentially cannibalize other things in the community. Instead of going to the park or the golf course, people go to the stadium. They don’t create economic growth.”

Translation: The climate in Tallahassee now is turning against this so-called corporate welfare.

The message to the Rays and other teams is that the state might listen if they need help building a road or stuff like that. But if they’re asking for tax money to build something that strictly benefits the team’s bottom line, think again.

Building a new ballpark in St. Petersburg: Throwing good money after bad

St. Petersburg is a lovely, vibrant city that is getting better by the day. I love its waterfront and its eclectic, revitalized downtown.

So I hope my friends there don’t this personally when I ask: Have your city leaders lost their minds?

I refer to the “Baseball Forever’ push to a build a stadium that will keep the Tampa Bay Rays within St. Pete city limits. This includes a recently released pitch by superfan Dick Vitale, who routinely drives from his home in Bradenton to watch his beloved Rays.

Awesome.

I hope, however, that sooner rather than later it becomes obvious that as awful as Tropicana Field may be, the stadium is not what has kept fans away by the millions. Unless St. Petersburg’s pitch includes a shape-shifting act that can move itself to the center of the sprawling expanse known as Tampa Bay, building a new ballpark would be throwing good money after bad.

It’s important to interject here that at least St. Petersburg is trying. The Rays have been free to talk with planners in Hillsborough County, but no specific plan has emerged.

Here is the essential truth, though: Location is everything.

A new stadium would have the same old problems if it is built where St. Pete leaders say it should be – on what basically now is the same spot as the Trop, which should have been ruled out long ago.

Have they forgotten the 2010 report from a blue-chip group called ABC (A Baseball Community)? It studied five locations throughout the Bay area, including downtown St. Petersburg, and concluded the following:

“Of the five major trade areas studied as possible locations for this new facility, three of them – one in mid-Pinellas/St. Petersburg, and two in the Tampa area (Westshore and downtown) – represent the best options in terms of demographic trends, potential fan attraction and corporate support. In addition, it is likely that as the Tampa Bay region grows over the coming decades, these areas will become more favorable when compared to the alternatives.”

Let’s pause for a brief history lesson, because you know what they say about people who don’t study past mistakes.

The push for baseball here started in St. Petersburg but quickly became a cooperative between both sides of the Bay. The original idea was a stadium located in the so-called Gateway area on the Pinellas side of the Howard Frankland Bridge.

There was the usual trouble finding a site big enough and affordable, but rather than solve the problem St. Petersburg city leaders ramrodded a plan to build what first was known as the Florida Suncoast Dome. We know it now as the catwalk-covered catastrophe called the Trop.

They did this despite explicit warnings from baseball leaders, including Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, that they were embarking on a fool’s errand.

I remember asking a member of the Pinellas Sports Authority why in the world they wanted to build in downtown St. Pete. His argument, oft repeated, was “It’s just a few more miles from the end of the bridge.”

Those “few more miles” made all the difference.

The Rays consistently rank at or near the bottom in Major League Baseball attendance.

From where I live in Hillsborough County, it is 37 miles to the Trop parking lot through horrendous traffic. Corporate season ticket sales for the Rays are scarce because companies found they couldn’t give them away to employees or clients. That won’t change if a new stadium is built in the same spot as the Trop.

There also is this: I would be greatly surprised if the Rays would even entertain the notion of signing another long-term lease for a stadium in the same spot as the one now – unless the fish in the Gulf of Mexico just to the west of the Trop suddenly start buying tickets.

When you’re trying to fill a stadium for 81 nights, you need to build it where the fans are. There aren’t enough of them in St. Petersburg to make this work.

Memories of Bobby Bowden: Much more than winning football games

I recently was invited to a screening of “The Bowden Dynasty: A Story of Faith, Family & Football.” That’s the upcoming movie about the life and career of legendary Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden.

The film will debut Jan. 8 at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg as part of a celebration for the national college football championship game the following night in Tampa.

If you like football, or you went to FSU, or you think Bobby Bowden is an American treasure, or even if you’re a Gator, you should see this movie. It’s scheduled for simultaneous, one-night-only release at about 450 theaters around the nation, but I’m sure it will be available before long on DVD and other places.

I was invited to this screening because I covered FSU sports for several seasons starting in 1981 for The Tampa Tribune. That, joyously, included coverage of Bobby Bowden. Now 87, he coached the Seminoles for 34 years before being forced into retirement after the 2009 season.

FSU wasn’t the football colossus then that it is now. During the years I covered them, the Seminoles took on all comers – almost always on the road – to build the program. The first season I covered them, FSU had consecutive road games at Nebraska, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Pitt (with a quarterback named Dan Marino), and LSU.

For most programs, that would be a suicide mission, but FSU won three of those five games. Many football coaches are so tight they squeak but Bowden played loose, played fun, and won through innovation and a willingness to take chances. He was completely accessible, too – just call him up direct, no need to go through channels.

His greeting was always the same: “Hey buddy!”

I remember one game against Louisville when the kickoff was moved to late on a Saturday night, which wreaked havoc on newspaper deadlines. The Seminoles were expected to win easily. So what would be the harm, I asked him, if I came down in the break before the fourth quarter and asked a couple of quick questions for my story?

I think you can imagine Bowden’s answer.

“Use your own judgment,” he told me.

FSU was ahead 35-3 after three quarters that night. Sports Information Director Wayne Hogan, now with the Florida Sports Hall of Fame, escorted me the field, shaking his head as we went. I asked my questions and zipped back up to my spot in the press box.

Imagine asking that same favor today of Urban Meyer or Nick Saban – or even most high school coaches.

Without question, though, my No. 1 Bowden memory came after I had moved from beat writer to columnist at the Trib. It was the opening game of the 2004 season at Miami. The day before, Bowden had attended the funeral of his 10-year-old grandson, Bowden Madden, who had died in a car wreck.

I was assigned to do a story of how the coach handled such a tragedy. The Seminoles lost 16-10 in overtime, like that mattered much. I hung back in the postgame news conference until all the talk about the evening’s battle was done, then approached. Bowden was gracious as always, even admitting, “It was hard for my mind not to be somewhere else.”

I went on about my business interviewing other people that night when I heard my name. I turned to see Bobby Bowden as he was headed toward the team bus. He flipped the cap he had worn during the game in my direction and said, “Give it to your grandson.”

The cap sits on my mantle, waiting to be delivered when I have a grandchild. I will tell him the story of a coach like none other.

The movie of Bowden’s life is compelling and revealing, and it’s more than worth the two-hour investment in time. The project was spearheaded by FSU alumnus John Correy.

Rob Harvell and Brian Goodwin are the co-directors. They have worked on some of the outstanding ESPN documentaries, including “I Hate Christian Laettner.”

They captured the essence of a man who did more than win a lot of football games. We know how important college football is in the South, but what happens when the games are over is the true measure of a coach. Bobby Bowden changed lives and I was blessed to have a ringside seat for things I never will forget.

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