It took over 30 years and dozens of failed efforts to finally establish a Major League Baseball franchise in Southwest Florida. During spring training in 1995, Vince Naimoli’s ownership group was awarded a team, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
While Tampa Bay had their city name attached to the new team, the actual honor of hosting every home game went to the Florida Suncoast Dome, in St. Petersburg. Maybe this oddity was partly to blame for what turned out to be an air of ineptitude for the better part of their first decade.
During their first 10 years of play in the American League East, only once did “The Devil Rays” not finish in dead last. Along with what grew into an inherent sense of futility, the jokes about their stadium didn’t help.
Big business stepped up in an effort to fuel the failing stadium, and The Suncoast Dome, opened in February 1990, became known to locals as “The Trop”. Tropicana Field was now the home of a floundering professional baseball team, in reference to the beverage giant from right across the bay in Bradenton.
In between the time when the Rays became the primary resident, Tropicana Field played host to more NBA exhibition games and NHL hockey matches than it did baseball games. However, with the 1995 decision by MLB executives, Tampa finally had their baseball team. Well, sort of.
In all honesty, the Rays have sort of been the team without a true city, ever since they threw out their first pitch in St. Pete. Every year there seems to be a growing sentiment to move the team either out of Florida altogether, or at least to a more appealing venue. Some even advocated tearing down Tropicana Field and starting from scratch. Yes, it’s been that bad.
To prove patience truly can be a virtue, nearly 20 years after their first game, the Rays announced they are coming home, home to Tampa Bay. Owner Stuart Sternberg announced plans for a new complex, including an ultra-modern baseball stadium, planned for a 14-acre tract in Ybor City.
There are a many questions yet to be addressed, including money. However, even before the first shovel full of dirt is dug, there is a lot of enthusiasm for the move. While not geographically impressive to the uninformed, it will be a move that will bring a team, once without a true city, home where they belong.