Rays At Disney

For the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, that elusive road to success undoubtedly includes Interstate 4. And while the Rays’ three-game series last week with Texas at Disney’s Wide World of Sports was less than a flat-out, gangbusters’ success, it was hardly unsuccessful.

The games drew (9,000 average) about as much as they would have at the Trop, but it felt like more because the WWS park, unlike cavernous Tropicana Field, doesn’t hold much more than that. More importantly, the series proved a beacon for Orlando-area media. The home-away-from-home gambit underscored the Rays’ commitment to creating a regional brand, especially for television.

It’s one of the cornerstones that owner Stu Sternberg, who still seems the quintessential un-Naimoli, must have in place to make the Rays a viable franchise. But there are three more foundation blocks.

*One, as Sternberg has already indicated, is a new facility. Sometime after the next five years – but before the obsolete-from-the-outset Trop’s lease is up in 2027. Preferably one with a re-tractable roof, but anything is better than the Big Catwalk House.

*Location, location, location. While no one in St. Petersburg wants to speculate on this one, it’s still obvious that downtown St. Pete is not the place to house a Major League Baseball franchise. Sure, there’s the eastern outreach beyond Tampa to Orlando, but what about west? That’s the Gulf of Mexico, a market sector for deep-sea fishing, not baseball.

It never made sense to plunk this franchise down in St. Pete, but that was more a function of parochial one-upsmanship than sound geography and regional demographics. The market hub that is Tampa — or at least the Gateway section of St. Pete — still makes eminently more sense.

*The last block is winning. The honeymoon of free parking and a spruced up Trop ends this season. Next year has to show a marked improvement in the W column. It will take prudent but ambitious free-agent spending on pitching and the continued development of prospects. But the Sternberg wallet has to be open for business.

Ultimately, winning offsets a multitude of sins. But it’s likely Sternberg needs the full foundation. This is not tourist-driven spring training. This is the real Florida with all that the Sunshine State lifestyle implies. There’s a lot of competition for baseball – even winning baseball.

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