ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. — What did baseball's Tampa Bay Devil Rays, an expansion team awaiting its first major-league turns at bat, have in common this past spring with Babe Ruth's old Bronx Bombers? The answer: a training complex in the middle of St. Petersburg, Fla.
Babe Ruth once decided he wouldn't shag balls at the edge of the property, where alligators sunbathed. The Devil Rays' recruits exhibited no such qualms.
Their uppermost concern wasn't indigenous wildlife but earning a spot with the fledgling organization, which will join the Arizona Diamondbacks as the 29th and 30th major-league teams next year. Florida's west coast has long hosted professional teams during spring training. Not until 1994, however, did baseball designate Tampa-St. Pete as a future playing site, thus ending nearly 20 years of the city's attempt to land a new or existing team.
St. Petersburg's domed stadium, built to lure major-league baseball, has been used for virtually everything else, including home games of the National Hockey League's Tampa Bay Lightning.
"Basically we just needed an owner like Vince Naimoli to step up," says Rich Vaughn, Tampa Bay's vice president of public relations.
Tampa Bay's bid received an additional boost from Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, a Tampa resident. "He is so influential and visible down here," says Vaughn, "that he was a very strong voice in getting the team when it finally happened."
Although both the Devil Rays and Diamondbacks have been building farm systems, they won't begin to fill in their major-league rosters until next November's expansion draft.
Responsibility for player evaluations falls to Chuck LaMar and Bill Livesey. LaMar was Atlanta's assistant general manager for six years, and Livesey logged 18 years with the Yankees.
St. Pete's slant-topped Tropicana Dome, so designed to reduce air conditioning demand, came with few extras when built. Now that there's a baseball tenant, $62 million is being spent on renovations. "We're essentially building a building around the building," says Vaughn of the major remodeling.
To create more of a Florida feel, glass and stucco are replacing much of the drab exterior concrete. The roof will glow orange at night, a nice tie-in for Tropicana, the local orange juice giant that purchased naming rights for 30 years. The Devil Rays wanted to grow grass inside, but found they couldn't do so.