Bet on the Giants staying on coast-the Florida coast

Phil Jackman

September 03, 1992|By Phil Jackman

If ever there were a can't-miss proposition, a done deal, a lead-pipe cinch, it's that there will be big-league baseball in Tampa-St. Petersburg come spring.

"We have a contract that says we have the Giants, and we have every reason to believe the owners will approve the deal at their meeting in St. Louis next week," noted Rick Dodge of the committee to fill up the Suncoast Dome with a ballclub.

Arguing the mid-Florida area's case for approval by three-quarters of the National League owners and a simple majority from the American League will be Bob Lurie, henceforth the owner of the San Francisco franchise.

Of course, if called upon to bolster the case, Dodge will not hesitate to predict that the move from one West Coast to another will be the greatest thing to happen to the Giants since Willie Mays.

"Since we signed the contract with Mr. Lurie," he said, "you'da thought it was V-J [Victory in Japan] Day around here. The intensity of the enthusiasm has been amazing."

To say that the Tampa-St. Pete area has a lot going for it is an understatement.

For starters, about 30,000 have put down a deposit toward season-ticket reservations and, Dodge says, "studies and surveys tell us that we'll realize full season ticket orders of more than 20,000 out of that.

"That's with virtually no marketing having been done because we didn't want to jump the gun. But the fact is, this area is already pre-marketed. We have six teams conducting spring training in our area and each has about a hundred businessmen and other support units we can call on."

About $20 million will be necessary to get the dome ready for play in April, the money is available and estimates are that the work can be completed in five months, easily.

"Without baseball and hosting about 45 events, the dome loses about $1.5 million a year," says Dodge. "The break-even point is 130 dates and the baseball dates will give us that."

As for the area's reputation for supporting franchises, it's impeccable. "When we had a team in the USFL, it led its league in attendance," Dodge just happened to know. "Same when the Rowdies were in the outdoor soccer league. We have an Arena [football] League team and it drew 20,000 per game. Last year, the [Tampa Bay] Buccaneers were the second most profitable team in the NFL."

As an afterthought, he added, "Our team in the Florida State League equals the attendance of the rest of the league combined."

Seemingly, there are no chinks in the armor. Wait, wait, what about parking at the dome?

"We have 4,500 spaces right now, upgrading plans call for 4,500 more and there's 7,000 street spaces within easy walking distance. We checked and found out we have a better parking ratio than anyone in the major leagues," countered Dodge.

This is not the first time mid-Florida has been in the running for a baseball team. Back in 1988, it was left at the altar by the Chicago White Sox and, last year, it lost out to Miami in N.L. expansion in the last couple of weeks.

"Chicago was close, radio and TV going so far as to assure $15 million in rights fees, which ranked in the top five in the game. But a lot of us still felt when push came to shove the Illinois legislature would respond to keep the team in Chicago," Dodge recalled.

"Losing out in expansion was tougher because it wasn't until the very end that we lost our biggest investor. What that did is push us to assure it would be local ownership next time and about 85 percent of the present financing is local."

Asked perhaps a million times what feelings exist in Florida regarding its absconding with a team out of San Francisco, Dodge the diplomat pointed out, "We certainly didn't create the situation out there. San Franciscans had no fewer than four opportunities to cement the team to the city and each time, for one reason or another, they failed. Mr. Lurie was never able to interest anyone local to buy.

"We don't see this as anything but us taking advantage of an opportunity. We think it works well for the National League because we'll have the Marlins down in Miami and, even close, the Braves in Atlanta. As for the American League, it's not crazy about losing out in Florida, but it now has the [San Francisco] Bay Area to itself."

Tampa-St. Pete has been in the spring training business since 1914 and actually had the (then New York) Giants training there once, the magical year of 1951 when Bobby Thomson won the N.L. pennant with the "Shot Heard 'Round the World" home run against the then Brooklyn Dodgers.

It has been serious about gaining big-league ball since 1977 and broke ground on the baseball-only Suncoast Dome in 1986. "A lot of us didn't figure this would turn out to be a marathon when we started," said Dodge, "but it has certainly turned into one."

All indications are that fruition is at hand, but Dodge, for one, isn't a guy who's into celebrating yet. "You're talking to a guy who remembers well the governor of Illinois calling a special session of the legislature the last night of the session and the White Sox winning by just one vote in each house," said Dodge. "We take nothing for granted."

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