New Rays' owner Stuart Sternberg (AP)
ST. PETERSBURG, FL - Well, this sure has been an eventful off-season for the newly baptized Tampa Bay Rays so far, hasn’t it?
After a decade of squadouche, the team exorcised a Devil, traded Elijah Dukes (some would say he was the Devil incarnate, anyway) to D.C. where devilish politicians were said to steal candy from babies if they were not kissing them, and, finally, offered up a stadium idea where fans will feel like it’s hell on many a summer night should they have any interest in vacating their air-conditioned home to watch a big-league game up close and personal.
Oh yeah, perhaps just to show they are “cool,” Delmon Young was shipped off to chilly Minnesota and also dressed players in new duds.
I remember back in the day - OK, so it was just two years ago - where I sat at a table at the Renaissance Vinoy Hotel in St. Petersburg and listened intently as Stuart Sternberg outlined his plan for making the Rays a force in the community and in the major leagues.
That press conference was the biggest news to hit the Tampa Bay sports scene since the region was granted a major league baseball franchise or the death of Hugh Culverhouse, former owner of the Buccaneers.
Depending on what your favorite sport was, both were viewed as great events around these parts, or at least that is what I have been told. I didn’t get here until 1997.
Originally, fans didn’t care who was taking over the ball club so long as Vince Naimoli had been exiled, maybe to a place where he could actually get use out of that Hawaiian-type shirt he wore when John McHale came to town riding on his MLB pony.
The dogs followed because Vince came back the very next day.
That was the quickest change of mind since two owners sobered up after swapping Joe DiMaggio for Ted Williams after a night of sloshing down whatever was 86-proof.
It could very well have been Saddam Husssein that day because pushing old Vinny and the equally inept Chuck LaMar aside would make that person look like the man on the proverbial white horse.
Be that as it may, Sternberg was in, the bumble boys out and all was right with the world.
Or was it?
Seems the honeymoon didn’t last as long as Britney Spears’ first marriage in Vegas.
The dump that was Tropicana Field needed cleaning and upgrades to make it at least manageable for ownership that, under the terms of the lease, were responsible for its upkeep. The only bathroom that was cleaned on a regular basis was the one a Mets’ scout accidentally wandered into and caused his ejection from the building.
he john was in Naimoli’s suite.
The organization needed an enema. Heads rolled, responsible people were put in their place and distrust between departments faded. An organization began to flourish out of the ashes.
Imagine, a Phoenix in St. Petersburg.
But fans wanted to see things done yesterday. They all figured that if a new owner came to town with alleged deep pockets, the payroll would skyrocket and we would become the Yankees and Red Sox of the South.
That fell in faster than a soufflé at a day care center.
So what if the minor league system was a disaster and lacking in any character whatsoever (see Dukes and Young)? Spend, spend, spend was the fans’ mantra.
So what if the franchise was still stuck in the '50s for finding and developing Latin talent? Sternberg and his cronies had more money than God. We want to win now and to hell with tomorrow, they would say.
I couldn’t help but chuckle when I read things like the new guys were just like the old guys. And that was just one week into the new season after taking over.
Nothing like Tampa Bay fans thinking they are as smart as those in New York, Boston or St. Louis, huh? Many of those people haven’t reached the level of Kansas City or Miami much less the big three. Baseball? You would get folk hushing you for cheering in the House that Pinellas County Built.
For all the mistakes he made, and the numbers are mind-boggling, the fingerprints of former GM Chuck LaMar will be all over this organization for years to come. Yeah, yeah, you throw enough garbage against the wall something eventually sticks but look at the current roster and realize just how many are home grown.
Combine that with some magical additions and without spending a whole lot the nucleus for a long-running successful team are there right now or just a few months into the season away:
LF Carl Crawford, CF B.J. Upton, DH Jonny Gomes, 3B Evan Longoria, SS Jason Bartlett, 2B Akinori Iwamura, 1B Carlos Pena, fresh off a career year.
Pitching has been bolstered, too, and for the first time ever there are three bona fide starters in James Shields, Scott Kazmir and Matt Garza.
Even the bullpen, the main Achilles’ Heel in the past, is now looking formidable, highlighted by Troy Percival as the new closer, Al Reyes as a dependable setup man and Dan Wheeler in line for seventh inning work.
That’s more than half of what the Rays need to break camp at the end of March and could easily be dubbed “The Lucky Thirteen” by teams that would drool, to have one, if not all of the aforementioned.
That doesn’t even count the names of the up and coming that will burst on the scene in a year or so, maybe less. Jeff Niemann, David Price and Mitch Talbot on the hill along with Reid Brignac and Justin Ruggiano with gloves and bats are just part of that. Dig deeper into the organization and there are diamonds. A whole mine full.
So with all that said, how will that impact the biggest question of all: attendance?
To date, there is not one indication that baseball could be a success in Tampa Bay and a new downtown stadium could be nothing more than a PNC Park in Pittsburgh, all glitz with no fans. At least for me, I understand why ownership is still pinching pennies at this point.
Building something from nothing takes more than just money. Even with all the good will from free parking and a dressed up Trop, the fans did not flock to see the Rays. Attendance was up but up from what? It’s like “show me something, THEN I’ll come.”
If Tampa Bay fans are in a hurry for a winner, you have to be blind not to see it is right around the corner. That entire wait, which, at times, may seem like an eternity, will ultimately pay off. But in an era when everyone wants everything yesterday and the history of being lied to year after year, patience is at a premium especially when fans are asked to exercise some.
Remember, if you suffered with eight years of one Vincent J. Naimoli, the next eight should be a breeze.
And they won’t be as boring.
Ted Fleming, the manager of TBSN Radio 510, has been covering the sports scene in the Tampa Bay area for the last decade via radio and print. His radio show is syndicated by the Black Athletes Sports Network live daily for two hours, starting at 11:00 A.M. Additionally, he is a stringer for the PA SportsTicker and has previously worked for WEEI in Boston, ESPN 1050 in New York and Metro Sports. You can reach him by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.