MAXWELL:  Baseball’s future in the stand

5/29/2008 – Printed in the NATIONAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

I’m a Tampa Bay Rays fan, winning or losing, and I support the team’s proposal for a new waterfront stadium.
If you disagree with me, hold your letters, e-mails and telephone calls. You won’t change my mind. I’m with the Rays all the way.
I support the Rays’ proposal because it is about the future. It is about quality of life in St. Petersburg and the rest of the Tampa Bay area for decades and, perhaps, generations to come.
I’ve read the angry letters to the editor opposing the proposal. Many of these writers resist change and treat the entire downtown waterfront as a sacred cow. Please understand that I love the waterfront as much as anyone. A lot of other readers believe that the Rays management is a cabal of New Yorkers in cahoots with local officials to fleece the innocent and raid the public treasury.
Of course, the team is here to make a buck, but as far as I know, it’s been a good and trusted corporate citizen.
Last Sunday afternoon, three friends and I saw the Rays thrash the Baltimore Orioles at the Trop. It was classic baseball: peanuts, popcorn, Cracker Jack, hot dogs, beer, soda, pretzels, cotton candy and more. The canned music was, well, canned; the electronic gadgetry, lighting and graphics were tops. The crowd noise was enormous and instantaneous.
The fans, a piddling 18,000, were involved in the contest from beginning to end. Directly behind me, a rabid Baltimore fan, a woman with a salty vocabulary, reminded me that baseball brings disparate souls together. I realized that all around me, many other fans were wearing the colors of other major-league teams – New York, Detroit, Cleveland, Toronto, Boston, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
Directly in front of me, though, I saw the future – if we’re willing to let that future happen. A man from Wesley Chapel (I asked where he was from) had brought his daughter to the game. She was no more than 7. Using a cell phone, she took pictures of her father and other fans. She was particularly interested in the other children nearby. The kid sporting the blue Mohawk haircut and wearing a team jersey really caught her attention.
I looked around the stands and saw several thousand other children, from toddlers to teens. These youngsters are future fans of the Rays. They’re growing up with major-league baseball in their city. The game will be in their blood, and their need for a dogfight will become insatiable. They will adopt that obligatory hubris.
They will learn the arcane art of reading box scores of the team and of individual stars to determine the opponent’s chance of beating the Rays. Given time, these kids will become win-or-lose devotees, the mark of a city that has become a “baseball city,” one that takes much of its identity from its team.
Now Rays’ fans are more attached to individual stars, such as Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford, than to the team. But that will change the longer the team is here. New Yorker magazine baseball columnist Roger Angell commented on this phenomenon in a 1971 piece about the San Francisco Giants: “Baseball thrives on personality, but the cult of the team is even more essential to its well-being than the cult of the star.”
St. Petersburg residents should count their blessings to have the Rays, at all. Only 27 other cities have major-league teams.
Inevitably, the Rays will vacate the aging Trop, which takes more and more dollars each season for upkeep. Either the team will go to its new proposed stadium on the waterfront – no other local site fits the plan – or it will pack up and find a city eager to embrace it, one that appreciates the cultural value of professional baseball.
In his book, The Quality of Life, late author James Michener, who lived in more foreign cities than most of us can locate on a map, observed: “The greatness of a city, after its power has been concentrated, lies in its museums, its universities, its theaters, its opera, its orchestra, its baseball and football teams, its myriad other cultural and recreational facilities. …”
Michener believed that all great cities and wanna-be great cities should have “handsome sports palaces.” Although the Trop provides weather-free baseball, it’s not a handsome sports palace. A waterfront stadium could be, and it could become the symbol of the city.
I would hate to see the myopia of our most vocal opponents block the construction of the new stadium and force us to lose our team, which belongs to the children in the Trop’s bleachers on game day.
Our current generation of malcontents has no right to risk killing baseball in St. Petersburg. But, then, maybe we’re not ready for major-league baseball. Maybe we’re just a Podunk that doesn’t deserve baseball, even spring training.