It’s the Year 2030 and here at the Tampa Bay Regional Sports Commission (fictional), we find ourselves reflecting. Finding out, that, in fact, we never needed Major League Baseball. And yet Major League Baseball is always coming back.
Every spring, they come back. They were here before the Rays, and they are here after the Rays. We love our tourists and they bring in so much money, the gravy train was too good to get rid of. Even if we all knew a third of spring training attendance was local. What’s a few million diverted from the local ball club when the local economy earned hundreds of millions in tourist revenue?
The Rays tried. We’ll give them that. We knew eventually they would play Rule 52 – the territorial rule – against us. But the political clout of the Yankees both in Tampa and in Major League Baseball was too much. Rule 52 doesn’t cover spring training, and as long as George Steinbrenner’s name is on a high school in Tampa, we will always love our Yankees.
Regionally, the Rays were never part of hashtag “Team Tampa Bay”. Due to distance, they were our forgotten step child. Why do you think Jameis Winston never threw out the first pitch at a Rays game? Because he was a Yankees fan and never felt obligated to. And we never pushed him too.
If the local NFL quarterback didn’t buy in and couldn’t be convinced to root for the Rays, the whole idea of a Team Tampa Bay was bupkis. We knew it, but we marketed it anyway.
So the Rays left. Their fans yelled that Major League Baseball and our local politicians never really gave them a chance. And they might have a point. The Rays were surrounded on every side by cheaper, more convenient minor league teams. We’ll admit these teams drained the Rays of millions of dollars from hundreds of thousands of fans every year. Dollar hot dog night might not draw much, but over 20 years even the cost of cheapest hot dog adds up to a large amount of revenue lost. But you can’t have Spring Training without the Florida State League.
With the Rays gone, support to local Minor League Baseball has increased. From April to September, people now swim with the Threshers, fly with the Blue Jays, raid with the Marauders, and celebrate the legacy of the Yankees. The Threshers have often surpassed the former Florida State League attendance record, set in 1990 by the St. Pete Cardinals, ironically the original gauge for baseball support in St. Petersburg.
Here at the Tampa Bay Regional Sports Commission (fictional), we are happy about that.
Speaking of the Cardinals, in 2030 the St. Louis Cardinals made their triumphant return to St. Petersburg, where they trained from 1946 – 1997. They now play amidst the multiple condos and office buildings that sit where Tropicana Field once sat. It took three years to build the new complex and add a fifth spring training team in Tampa Bay. Tampa Bay is now a hub similar to Phoenix.
Unfortunately for the first year after the Rays left, Spring Training drew some very negative local attention. In 2028, Major League Baseball underestimated the response Tampa Bay fans would have to a team that left the region returning to the region to play exhibition games. When the Rays returned to play spring games against the Yankees, Phillies, and Blue Jays, the ex-Rays were booed mercilessly by upset former Rays fans. That year, outside each local stadium, fans protested ownership’s decision to move the team, and one very upset fan was even arrested for throwing a bottle at the ex-Rays’ bus.
Needless to say, attendance at the ex-Rays Port Charlotte spring training complex has the highest percentage of tourists of any spring training venue. Local fans want nothing to do with the team, and the Mayor of Port Charlotte had to turn down an invite to throw out a first pitch to an exhibition game due to the political repercussions.
If anything Rays-related has done well since 2027, it is Evan Longoria’s chain of restaurants. Decorated in Rays memorabilia, the former Rays star has cornered the market for mourning fans. After retiring in 2027 with 19 years only with the Rays. Longo never put on the uniform of another team. With that decision, he secured his legacy as Mr. Tampa Bay Ray. In 2033, he will be the eligible for the Hall of Fame and could be the only player with a chance to be inducted with a Rays hat.
Even without Major League Baseball, Tampa Bay continues to grow. Since the late 2010s, the area has become one of the hottest regions in the Southeast for jobs and economic development. Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik’s redevelopment of downtown was a success, new medical schools were built, and billion dollar construction projects were a completed or finally started – including the much needed rail, approved in 2022.
Will Major League Baseball ever return to Tampa Bay? We at the Tampa Bay Regional Sports Commission (fictional) don’t think so. While the region could support it now as it could since the economy recovered in the early 2010s, the insistence of local politicians that Spring Training and other regional developments were more important left the Rays with nowhere to go but out.
There is talk that Orlando – still the largest market in America without any baseball – may enter the bidding with Las Vegas, Charlotte, San Antonio, and Mexico City when baseball decides to expand again.
Here in Tampa Bay, baseball no longer leaves its fans to face the fall alone. We don’t look out windows waiting for baseball to come back.
Here at the Tampa Bay Regional Sports Commission (fictional), we’ve moved on.