How the Devil Rays were won: Tampa Bay’s journey to bring MLB to the region

Tampa Bay has always breathed baseball, from Yankees slugger Babe Ruth pummeling baseballs into Crescent Lake at now-Huggins-Stengel Field in St. Petersburg, to speedsters Lou Brock and Willie McGee wowing fans during St. Louis Cardinals spring training at Al Lang Stadium. 

The 813 and 727.

Hillsborough and Pinellas County have produced some of the game’s brightest current stars, like Pete Alonso, Bo Bichette, and Kyle Tucker.

Professional baseball has always had a place in east-central Florida. So how did we get here? 

Sports in Tampa Bay had grown significantly in the mid-1970s with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, one of the NFL’s newest franchise, and the North American Soccer League’s Tampa Bay Rowdies, who ushered in a newfound love for soccer in the United States.

However, baseball had a special place in the area with Major League Baseball’s Grapefruit League attracting fans for Spring Training in March and the Florida State League of Minor League Baseball keeping that interest going through the summer and early fall.

With that in mind, St. Petersburg city officials collectively decided to chase after one goal. Luring a Major League Baseball team to the Sunshine City. 

By the early 80’s, renderings of a ballpark were drawn up, using cues of an open air stadium with fountains in the outfield, similar to what you would see in Kauffmann Stadium in Kansas City.

However, with Florida’s cruel, hot and humid summers, paired with the natural disaster of a hurricane, city officials backed off of a plan of an open-air ballpark, and pivoted to a domed, multi-purpose facility. 

Behind relocating tenants of the neighborhood in South St. Petersburg known as the Gas Plant District and Webb City, City officials have the thumbs up to begin construction on a domed stadium in 1986.

Four years later, the Florida Suncoast Dome opened for business with a Kenny Rogers concert in front of over 28,000 people. St. Pete now had their facility, but what team would take it over?

In 1988, the Illinois State Senate passed a bill that would award the Chicago White Sox with a new stadium, but it was now up to the Illinois House of Representatives to approve the bill in question.

If the Illinois House did not pass on the bill by July 1st at midnight, the Pale Hose were rumored to be moving about 1200 miles south to St. Petersburg, Florida where a stadium was already being constructed.

By midnight, they were six votes short, but somebody in the Illinois State House froze the clocks before the deadline. On now August 1st, the stadium bill was approved 60-55. Tampa Bay strikes out swinging. 

The Minnesota Twins, Oakland A’s, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, and Detroit Tigers all used Tampa Bay as leverage in order to help refurbish their current ballparks or build an entirely new one. But the big ploy came in by way of the Bay on the West Coast. 

In August of 1992 the San Francisco Giants were for sale and talks intensified between San Francisco and Tampa Bay. A plane trip to San Francisco, and In ninety minutes of talks and $111 million dollars later, Vincent Naimoli, Rick Dodge and company had an agreement in ink.

The Giants were expected to be moved for the 1993 season to Tampa Bay, and the Florida Suncoast Dome now had a tenant. National League President Bill White opposed, and a vote was held at season’s end.

Plans came to a screeching halt on November 10th as MLB owners voted 9-4 against the sale. The Giants were sold for $11 million LESS to Peter McGowan, and the Giants would remain in the Bay. Tampa Bay is now 0-2 with two strikeouts. 

In 1995, Tampa Bay filed for expansion again after a failed bid in 1991. With 31,000 season ticket reservations made, nearly 9,000 more than several years prior, and a $155 million expansion fee ready, the Tampa-St. Petersburg market was awarded a franchise alongside Phoenix.

After nearly two decades, St. Petersburg had accomplished the long sought after goal of having a full-time team. 

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