In an unusual show of internal dissent, Major League Baseball says a priority for the sport in St. Petersburg is not a spring-training complex for the Atlanta Braves, but rather a new ballpark for the Tampa Bay Rays.
The baseball world was surprised earlier this week when the Braves, in association with a real-estate development firm, pitched a 240-acre, $622-million sports complex to St. Petersburg that would feature a two-team spring-training complex, an 11,000-capacity ballpark (10,000 seats, 1,000 on the berm), a 15,000-seat fieldhouse for indoor events, a 20,000-seat track and field stadium, an aquatic center, a hockey rink and a 200,000-square foot dormitory housing 800.
Also surprised: Major League Baseball officials and the Tampa Bay Rays front office, who were not given much time to review the proposal. And while the complex is a great project for the Braves, it’s not so great a project for the Rays, as the developer will be seeking Pinellas County hotel-tax money that could otherwise go toward a new Tampa Bay Rays ballpark should the team stay in St. Petersburg. Also, MLB might have gently pushed a developer toward working with the Rays on this project instead of the Braves — a 240-acre site next to a major freeway certainly could have some room for an MLB ballpark instead of a two-team training complex.
The statement issued today by the commissioner’s office was terse:
“Earlier this week, Major League Baseball and the Tampa Bay Rays learned of the St. Petersburg Sports Park proposal for the first time. Major League Baseball appreciates the support that it has received for the construction of Spring Training facilities throughout the State of Florida. The most pressing need, however, is the construction of a Major League-quality facility for the Rays.
“Major League Baseball is committed to working with the Rays to secure a new ballpark in cooperation with the Tampa Bay region. This can only happen with the support of local political and business leaders.”
Politically, MLB and Florida have enjoyed a better relationship in recent years, with the state launching a sports-tourism fund that will help fund a new Washington Nationals-Houston Astros spring-training complex in West Palm Beach.
However, the proposal may have one welcome side effect: it may prompt St. Pete officials to work a little harder toward a new Rays ballpark. From the St. Petersburg Tribune:
City Councilman Karl Nurse said the SportsPark proposal should increase the urgency of council members to reach a deal with the team before the county decides to use its tourist tax money elsewhere. The bonds used to build Tropicana Field will be paid off this month, potentially making that money available for a new stadium.
“To me, the bottom line is the mayor and the city council, between the end of this baseball season and the beginning of the next one, have to put together a deal with the Rays to get started on this thing,” Nurse said. “If that money gets sent elsewhere, I think the door closes and one day we’re going to wake up to the sound of Major League Baseball announcing the Rays will play their first game when this contract ends in another city,” he said.
With a city council election in November, Nurse, who supported Kriseman, said a newly elected member could break the council deadlock, or perhaps a current member might reconsider.