Rays Of Hope Radiate On Bay Area Baseball – And Yet

There was a lot to like about the Tampa Bay Rays’ recent rollout of their new sunburst-complementing, traditional-looking uniforms and newly exorcised name.

For openers, not much this side of Monte Carlo surpasses the early evening, fall ambience of Straub Park fronting St. Petersburg’s rapturous downtown waterfront. An overflow crowd of 7,000 would bear witness. Video screens accommodated those who chose to watch from picnic blankets.

Busby Berkeley couldn’t have orchestrated it any better:

*A parade of Rays – from crowd favorites Jonny (“I can’t wait to get this dirty”) Gomes, Carl Crawford and Scott Kazmir to Manager Joe Maddon, Hall of Famer Wade Boggs and venerable coach Don Zimmer – was a well-timed, well-directed marketing success.

*Kevin (“Field of Dreams,” “Bull Durham”) Costner accepted an invitation and performed with his 7-piece rock band, Modern West. “We made a cold call that was warmly received,” explained Rays’ president Matt Silverman.

*The crowd queues were longer for new Rays’ paraphernalia at the Champs Sports tent than they were at the chicken fingers and beer concessions combined.

*Dads and sons maxed out at the interactive stations.

*Retirees enjoyed anything that was free.

*The unfashionably surly Delmon Young actually flew in for Project Rays Runway.

*Rocco Baldelli threw out souvenir baseballs without hurting himself.

*Elijah Dukes was safely sequestered in the Dominican Republic playing winter ball.

And yet.

Everybody knows that ultraviolet Rays and new unis are merely symbolic of a new identity and a new beginning. And after a decade of bad baseball, symbols only work in the first off-season. Then the team MUST start winning.

As a Penn State alumnus, I know of uniform symbolism. When the Nittany Lion football team wins, the uniforms are classically plain and cool. When the Lions lose, especially on the road, the look is boringly plain and dull. Nobody loves a uniform loser.

And then there’s the ill-timed stadium scenario.

The Rays barely enjoyed 24 hours of radiating in their new identity, including big crowds for a Tampa road show and St. Petersburg City Council members sporting new Rays’ jerseys. Then they found themselves in the frustrating position of upstaging themselves. Details of plans for a new stadium on city-owned, bayside land downtown were leaked by the St. Petersburg Times at least a month before the Rays were geared up for a formal announcement accompanied by one of those imposing, populace-stirring renderings.

Oops. Cue the “Field of Schemes” rhetoric.

The Rays, we learned, propose a 35,000-seat, $450 million facility on the site of picturesque Al Lang Field at Progress Energy Park. Funding would involve the sale of the Tropicana Field site, some $60 million in state sales-tax rebates and a direct Rays’ contribution of $150 million. Whatever the merits of a state-of-the-art, nautically-themed, destination facility, there’s no lack of skeptics – from politicians who aren’t Charlie Crist to win-starved fans. And, yes, a vote will be required.

Moreover, any stadium talk ultimately devolves into a conversation about the uniquely challenging marketplace that is Tampa Bay. The population is dispersed and parochial. A sizable chunk is on fixed income. There are too many transplants with too many allegiances elsewhere and too few corporate headquarters.

Inevitably, the obvious issue of St. Petersburg – anywhere in St. Petersburg – as the best place for a Major League Baseball franchise is revisited.

The best place is still Tampa, with much easier access to what’s east of Hillsborough County – including Orlando. Not one where due west is the Gulf of Mexico and Corpus Christi, Texas.

But there’s that all-but-impossible-to-break Rays’ lease with the city of St. Petersburg that runs until 2027.

But, hey, how ’bout them new Rays?

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