CHAPTER 1 STALKING HORSE
Victory is yes after a thousand nos. --Rick Dodge, former St. Petersburg city administrator
Big Jim Thompson stalked the floor of the Illinois state legislature, sweat soaking through his shirt and streaming down his brow. The Illinois State Senate had narrowly passed a bill that would pay for a new stadium for the Chicago White Sox. It was now up to the House of Representatives to approve the bill. That meant Thompson, the six-foot-six, 230-pound Illinois governor, now had to crack some skulls.
The Senate’s vote had been contentious. Dissenting lawmakers blasted the bill. They asked why Illinois should shell out nine figures to build a new ballpark for White Sox owners Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn, both of them millionaires many times over, while the state’s schools went woefully underfunded. Now House members were expressing similar objections. Worse yet for Thompson, the clock was ticking. The General Assembly had until midnight Central Time to pass the stadium bill. If the House failed to get the necessary votes, July 1, 1988, would be forever remembered as the day one of baseball’s oldest franchises was forced out of town.
Twelve hundred miles away in Florida, St. Petersburg couldn’t sleep. Hundreds of thousands of dollars had been spent on committees and feasibility studies. Millions more were spent to remove toxic chemicals from a downtown plot of land that once housed a coal gasification plant. Another $138 million would be spent on a domed, multi-use stadium on that site, which the city had begun building--on spec--to attract a major league team.
Giddy with anticipation, St. Pete’s community leaders and baseball advocates watched the clock approach 1:00 a.m. Eastern Time. For months, speculation had grown that the White Sox wouldn’t get their deal and would bolt for Florida. Local newscasts had long ago embedded reporters at the Illinois Statehouse, and live reports were now streaming in from Springfield, Illinois. St. Petersburg’s hulking new stadium was half-completed, still awaiting an anchor tenant. In just a few minutes, the city would learn if the stadium plan variously described as courageous, reckless, and just plain ballsy would finally reel in the Major League Baseball team that the stadium’s builders craved.
As the deadline approached, Governor Thompson’s lobbying efforts intensified. He towered over House members, grasping shoulders, shaking hands, whispering threats to some, promises to others. Thompson saw the White Sox as a vital part of Chicago’s very self, a valuable institution with a history stretching beyond anyone’s living memory. The governor gradually swayed votes to his side. But every time he looked up, he would see that damned clock. All the pleading and cajoling was about to go to waste. With midnight about to strike, Thompson was still six votes short. The governor had only one move left.
He stopped the clock.
“We were live on the air, and twelve o’clock came and went,” recalled Mark Douglas, a former reporter for WTSP-TV St. Petersburg who was embedded at the Illinois Statehouse. “John Wilson, our news anchor at the time, says, ‘Mark, help me out here. I thought the vote had to be made by midnight.’ Sure enough, the clock in the chamber was stuck at a few minutes before midnight. Since they’d stopped the clock, they had not officially reached their deadline.”
Even by the down-and-dirty standards of Illinois politics, this was a jarring move. The state had seen countless Chicago aldermen rung up on racketeering and extortion charges, judges brought down for accepting bribes, mayors and state senators indicted or convicted on various charges. Two decades later, sitting governor Rod Blagojevich would be impeached and removed from office for a range of alleged infractions--including an alleged pay-to-play scheme in which he plotted to sell Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat to the highest bidder--and later convicted on a charge of lying to the FBI. But never in Illinois history had lawmakers stopped time to get what they wanted.
Thompson took full advantage. The governor secured the votes he needed, then put the bill up for vote. The proposal was approved by a thin margin: 60–55.
“It’s a political resurrection from the dead,” Thompson beamed afterward.
Meanwhile, the mood turned to shock and anger in St. Pete. The city had collected nearly twenty thousand entries to name the new stadium. Thousands of Florida White Sox T-shirts were chucked into the trash. The local media eviscerated Thompson and the rest of the Illinois General Assembly.
In a court order the day after the vote, David Seth Walker, the longest-serving circuit judge in Florida history, summed up the unlikely chain of events that got the Chicago stadium bill passed. Only twice in the history of man had the passage of time stopped, Walker proclaimed. Citing the Bible, Walker noted that the first instance occurred when Joshua was surrounded by enemies and feared he’d be overpowered upon nightfall. He pleaded to the Lord, who responded with a miracle--making the sun stand still. The second time happened in the Illinois legislature.
Major League Baseball had just begun to take St. Petersburg for a roller-coaster ride. With a completed, mostly empty stadium, the city wouldn’t--couldn’t--jump off.
Long before Vince Naimoli made baseball miserable for an army of sad, black, gold, green, purple, and teal-clad fans, the people of St. Petersburg pined for any major league club at all. But once an MLB team finally came to St. Pete, it stunk. Imagine you’re a Chicago Cubs fan, doomed to follow a team with no hope of winning the big one . . . no matter what the theoretical odds say. Only instead of playing in picturesque Wrigley Field under bright blue skies, you watch your Cubbies lope after fly balls in a windowless warehouse somewhere in Indiana--a warehouse you waited half your life to get built. Use the Tampa Bay Devil Rays conversion system, where ten years of losing (most of those under the worst owner in sports) feel like a hundred, and you have a sense of the despair that rained down on St. Pete. It would take a complete management overhaul, a new generation of young star players, and a full-blown exorcism to finally turn the tide.
The city’s baseball history wasn’t always so glum. St. Pete had plenty of happy baseball memories dating back a lifetime before Major League Baseball ever arrived.
In 1902, the St. Petersburg Saints started play as a semipro team. The Saints eventually evolved into a minor league team, before folding in 1928. Another minor league club called the Saints emerged nearly two decades later. That team would later become the St. Petersburg Cardinals, and eventually the St. Petersburg Devil Rays, going through five different major league affiliations. St. Pete gained greater recognition as the birthplace of spring training in Florida. Starting in 1914 and spanning ninety-four years, the city played host to eight spring training teams. Babe Ruth played there. Bob Gibson pitched there. Casey Stengel managed there. Still, the city’s baseball track record was far from perfect; St. Pete had suffered through its share of minor league attendance problems. It would take a while for the city to pop up on Major League Baseball’s radar as a viable candidate for relocation or expansion.
Jack Lake was one of the first civic leaders to push for a big league team in the Tampa Bay region. By the late 1960s, the longtime publisher of the St. Petersburg Times was using his influence to rally local businessmen, politicians, and other influence peddlers to the cause. Those lobbying efforts eventually gained momentum. In 1977, Florida’s legislature formed the Pinellas Sports Authority--named after St. Petersburg–encompassing Pinellas County--which the state hoped would play a leading role in attracting Major League Baseball to the area. Three years later, the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce formed a dedicated baseball committee. In 1982, the city offered a stadium site to the sports authority for $1 a year in rent, the first of many major concessions that local government would grant along the way. The next year, St. Pete’s city council approved the new stadium project.
The ensuing two-year period marked a tumultuous time for St. Petersburg’s stadium efforts. First, the county withdrew its support in 1984. The city and Pinellas Sports Authority countered with a lawsuit the next year and eventually prevailed. A public hearing followed, exposing passions on both sides. Stadium backers didn’t want to see two decades of lobbying and goodwill wasted, even if they hadn’t yet locked down a baseball team to actually play there. Local residents didn’t want their tax dollars funneled into a new ballpark, a stance other cities would have done well to follow, given the billions of dollars in taxpayer money thrown into baseball team owners’ pockets during the stadium-building boom that would soon follow. But against opponents’ protests, the city council voted to proceed with the stadium project anyway. On November 22, 1986, St. Pete staged what it called “the World’s Largest Groundbreaking.”
As the stadium took shape, a handful of MLB owners began offering their support. Philadelphia Phillies owner Bill Giles was one of the first to speak out on St. Petersburg’s behalf. Giles was a member of the National League expansion committee, and he had plenty of local knowledge--the Phillies had played their spring training games in nearby Clearwater since 1947. When St. Pete applied for expansion, Giles aimed to learn more about the city’s credentials.
Giles took a group of Phillies personnel and outfielder Von Hayes to St. Pete’s new dome to see how the roof would play in a live baseball game. A Phillies coach hit a towering pop-fly to left field. Hayes looked up at the white, Teflon-coated fiberglass roof, squinted, then covered his head and scampered away. St. Pete officials looked on in horror--one pop-up and the whole deal was about to be blown. A few seconds later, Hayes started laughing. The dome’s roof was made of the same material as the roof in Minnesota’s Metrodome, and Hayes could see the ball just fine. Score one for the Philadelphia pranksters.
Giles and Mets owner Fred Wilpon also led a contingent of MLB executives who flew in to survey the market. The owners toured the new dome, explored the surrounding downtown area--by then seeing redevelopment--and surveyed the local traffic patterns, including the oft-lamented Howard Frankland Bridge. The three-mile bridge over Tampa Bay heightened the rivalry between the twin cities; the Tampa Tribune ran an editorial showing an island in the middle of Tampa Bay, near the bridge, as the ideal place for an expansion baseball team to play.
Giles weighed those and other factors and still came away impressed, reporting his findings to the rest of the committee. Putting a team in downtown St. Pete would tap into a large metropolitan area that could also draw from the twin city of Tampa, communities like Bradenton to the south, and even the greater Orlando area less than two hours away.
Still, St. Pete residents remained skeptical of MLB’s interest. They didn’t want to become that guy who gets all the compliments from female friends, before being deemed too nice to date. Indeed, when the White Sox began exploring a move south, they laid the flattery on thick.
“Florida is the last virgin franchise area in the country,” Mike McClure, White Sox VP for marketing, said at the time. “It is the greatest opportunity in baseball since Walter O’Malley took the Dodgers west to Los Angeles.”
Were McClure, Jerry Reinsdorf, and other White Sox execs being sincere in their at times over-the-top praise for St. Pete? Or were they using the threat of a move as a weapon they could wield against reluctant politicians who balked at building them a new stadium on the public dime?
It was a little of both.
“Reinsdorf initially [didn’t want] to come to Florida,” said Rick Dodge, St. Petersburg’s longtime city administrator and one of the leading forces behind the city’s drive to build the stadium and attract a team. “He owned the Bulls, he was really a Chicago guy. But even after Illinois passed legislation to build the new stadium, everything got delayed and nothing happened. He went from someone who was casually interested to, the further we got into this, the more he saw a potential market.
“There was never a misunderstanding,” Dodge mused. “We were always the alternative if they couldn’t get the deal done. But it’s just like romancing someone. At some point you fall in love and you don’t even know it.”
Despite the White Sox letdown, St. Pete pushed ahead with stadium construction, and the Florida Suncoast Dome opened in the spring of 1990. The plan called for the stadium to host various sporting events, concerts, and other shows until a baseball team could be drawn to the area. At that point, the city would retrofit the Dome to meet the baseball-specific needs and requests of the team’s owners. The Dome lured various musicians, Davis Cup tennis, arena football, and NBA exhibition games. The stadium would later find more use when its first anchor tenant, the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning, took up residence in 1993.
Still, attracting a baseball team remained St. Pete’s top priority for the stadium. And as Major League Baseball’s 1991 expansion process evolved, St. Petersburg looked like one of the top candidates.
You could forgive Dodge for feeling like Charlie Brown, looking out at Lucy holding the football and wondering if this would finally be the time he’d get to kick. Again and again, baseball owners and other insiders had assured Dodge and other city officials that their time would come. They’d done so every time a team approached St. Pete, only to back out when the owners either got the huge local public subsidy they’d been seeking all along or simply got cold feet.
The Minnesota Twins, Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners, and Oakland A’s all made overtures to St. Pete. Even the venerable Detroit Tigers secretly sent a delegation to Florida. Texas and Seattle would secure lucrative new stadium deals after first flirting with St. Pete. Detroit got its own new park, though the Tigers used less public saber-rattling to make it happen. Talks with Twins ownership progressed further, before the team opted to stay in Minnesota; state lawmakers would eventually fold and build a shiny new park for the Twins, though long after the team had mulled moving to St. Pete. Only the A’s stadium situation remains in limbo to this day, with the team vying to move to San Jose and the Bay-sharing San Francisco Giants exercising nebulous territorial rights to block the move--some two decades after exploring a move to St. Pete.
St. Petersburg had become a stalking horse. The A’s and Twins had failed to parlay the threat of a St. Pete move into a new stadium deal, at least directly. But several other teams leveraged local panic over a possible Florida move to get the favorable stadium deals they wanted. Best of all, team owners didn’t have to make many threats themselves. The Commissioner’s Office could make the threats for the owners while they remained above the fray, the downtrodden businessmen who just wanted to make an honest buck. To Major League Baseball and its owners, the message was obvious: Tampa Bay offered much more value as an exploitable, untapped market than it ever could as the home of a major league team.
From the Hardcover edition.