Florida Baseball and The San Juan Rays

Thursday November 15th, 2012

Alex Mednick (Baseball Writer and Analyst)

Last week Jonathan Hacohen, the founder of MLBReports.com called to my attention that the Tampa Bay Rays are an anomaly.  Ultimately, if you look at the way their team is structured and where their talent lays, and the kind of game that Joe Maddon manages the Rays are ultimately a National League team; displaced in the AL East.  The Rays greatest strength is their depth of pitching that they can reach into the bowels of an amazing farm system ripe with young talent.  But from there on out, they rely on an offense that generates runs due to other inefficiencies.

Joe Maddon might very well be the best manager in baseball. He possesses a unique approach to the game, that if had to be categorized, is definitely more national league style than american league. He has to be creative in how he manufactures runs, as his offense does not boast the big sluggers other AL East teams do. He does, however, have a plethora of pitching talent available.

With B.J. Upton leaving town, and Carlos Pena only a carcass of what he once was, there is ultimately zero power left in their lineup.  Their DH for the past two years have been the likes of an aging Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, and Luke Scott.  Ownership is constantly complaining about attendance and looking for bargain free agents like Johnny Damon to bring in at the end of their careers and hopefully attract some Yankees and Red Sox fans to the stadium.

At this point, the Rays power hitters are Evan Longoria, Matt Joyce and Ben Zobrist.  They have an amazing nucleus of pitching talent, including David Price who just won the AL Cy Young, and they are mentioning trading almost all of their starting pitchers.  This is understandable, as you have to dish out talent to bring back offensive talent that they are in great need of.  But I still have major gripes with the way owner Stuart Sternberg has approached the past 4 seasons in St. Petersburg, and I will get into more detail about this in a little while.

Given the events that have occurred on the other coast of Florida this week in the baseball world, I have been giving a lot of thought about baseball in Florida in general.  The owner of the Miami Marlins, Jeffrey Loria (the same man who killed baseball in Montreal), has taken Stuart Sternberg’s apathetic state of ownership and made it a relatively trivial air of ownership negligence.

Jeffrey Loria, the owner of the Miami Marlins franchise, has disgraced baseball and his team. His actions were misleading, and damaging to the residents of Miami Dade County, the fans of baseball, and the players whom were involved. We will see how the league reacts to his transgressions.

What Loria has done in Miami, to the fans, to the tax payers, and even to the players…can be argued it is criminal.  When Loria attracted MLB and the county of Miami-Dade to build a new stadium through public funding, he created the impression that he would inject new life into the team via additional funding.  Now the tax payers of Dade County are in the hole for $2.5 billion dollars, and the huge spending spree one year ago, turned into a fire sale 3 days ago.  All that is left is municipal debt, a beautiful new stadium, new uniforms…and a bunch of AAA Marlins who as of now just got a promotion.  It appears Albert Pujols was very wise when he opted not to sign with the Marlins without a no-trade clause in his contract!

So I have gone from simply considering whether a league swap would be beneficial for the Rays and baseball, to completely reconsidering the health, and the viability, of baseball in Florida.  I am a Florida resident, and I have lived here now for 6 years.  Like the majority of Florida residents, I come from somewhere else.  I come from New Haven, Connecticut…a huge mecca for baseball and home to one of the greatest rivalries in all sports.

Whether we are talking about the I-95 corridor in Florida and northeastern transplants, the I-75 corridor and Midwestern migrants, or south Florida and the enormous Caribbean population…Florida is a melting pot within a melting pot.  Chances are, if you live in Florida and care about baseball, you have carried an allegiance to a local team from wherever it is you come from.  Going to Tampa Bay Rays or Miami Marlins games is merely a novelty, and a chance to see your favorite professional baseball team come to town…and probably earn a series victory in the process.  Additionally, and this is speaking in very generalized terms, if you are a native Floridian and derive pride in being a Tampa Bay or Miami original, you probably don’t care all that much about baseball.

Generally speaking, Florida Natives are not as keen on baseball as is the case in other regions of North America. Football and Nascar hold precedence. The majority of baseball fans in Florida are from somewhere else and already support another team. It is a novelty to see their teams visit the Rays and Marlins, but the Tampa Bay and Miami do not harvest a strong fan base for their teams.

The point I am eluding to is that the Florida Marlins we justified as an expansion team in Miami because of the large influx of wealthy northeasterners to the area.  Northeasterners who bleed baseball the same way that southerners love their NCAA football and NASCAR.  But the novelty of having the Marlins in town has really proven to be a bust and not very marketable.  Spring Training, which is slowly diminishing team by team in the Grapefruit League, is still a popular retreat for frozen northerners every March.  But Miami and Tampa Bay really are not appropriate markets for baseball teams…if any city in Florida should have a team, frankly, it should be Orlando…one of the most visited destinations in the world.  I say all of this as someone who lived in St. Petersburg for 4 years and absolutely loved the city and culture.  My wife is a native Floridian and Rays fan, and I am going to catch a lot of heck from a lot of people.  But the truth is out.

Now Miami has a big problem and who knows what kind of legal action will be taken.  Obviously, they have a brand new piece of state-of-the-art infrastructure, which is not going away anytime soon.  That stadium will be utilized, or the tax payers will riot in the streets.  On the other coast we have the Tampa Bay Rays.  The Rays, who are owned by the uninvolved New York millionaire Stuart Sternberg, have been in detailed discussion now for years about relocating.

Sternberg has been blessed with an amazing GM that has been able to assemble competitive playoff contenders now for 4 years, using only the limited resources ownership handed him.  And all the while that this has been happening, Sternberg has been trading away talent as they become too expensive, rather than retaining them and adding those extra pieces that would put them over the edge.  And he has complained over and over about how nobody comes to games while subsequently raising ticket prices during a recession.  In many way, the Rays have endured much more pain than Marlins fans have.  The Marlins have at least won championships. The Rays have been on the edge of their seats for 4 years now, and have been tortured by an owner who just doesn’t care.

The Marlins and Rays both have horrendous ownership. Rays owner Stuart Sternberg provides very few resources for their teams to compete. Amazingly enough, his GM Andrew Friedman has managed to turn the team into perennial contenders. There is no monetary support or commitment to acquire key players or to even retain their own players.

I look at the City of Saint Petersburg and applaud their stance on disallowing Sternberg to move the Rays from Saint Petersburg.  The Rays have a 25 year contract with the City of Saint Petersburg and Tropicana Field.  Saint Petersburg is a true diamond in the rough.  It is a city that missed out on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sweepstakes, and a city that has been overlooked many times; but a city that has much to offer still.  In any deal that was approved, a very generous profit-sharing program would have to be worked out to benefit Saint Petersburg, and the plan would have to be demonstrably sensible.   Without getting too off topic and demonstrating my love for sunny St. Pete, I wanted to say that it is not without a faint heart that I propose the following.

There is momentum building in the movement to make Puerto Rico the USA’s 51st state.  Puerto Rico is home to 3.5 million residents, who all have a unique sense of pride and heritage.  Furthermore, Puerto Ricans are absolutely nuts for baseball…much unlike the native Floridians who fail in celebrating their hometown teams.  The San Juan Rays would be absolutely adored.  The Caribbean is such a large part of baseball already, but other than a few MLB training facilities, Major League Baseball really hasn’t jumped into this market.

Frankly, looking at who attends Miami Marlins games down in Miami, it is a majority of Caribbean fans who support the team.  Cubans, Haitians, and Dominicans love baseball the way that New Yorkers and St. Louis’ fans adore our national pastime.  Baseball in Puerto Rico is absolutely ripe for opportunity and seemingly a natural course to take.  Heck, you can even put the San Juan Rays in the NL East to create a natural rival with the Miami Marlins…then switch the hard-hitting Philadelphia Phillies and their huge payroll into the AL East.

Giving Puerto Rico their own team makes too much sense. They are an incredibly proud culture that harbors true love for the game of baseball.

Baseball in Puerto Rico will be eaten as fast as it is served.  And it will bring a lot of revenue into the game and add a fresh twist.  The World Baseball Classic is so much fun every 4 years to see baseball as a truly international game…because it really is.  People talk about Football overtaking Baseball as America’s game, but this is ultimately only according to television viewership (exclusively on Sundays) and Las Vegas odds.  Baseball is not only America’s game, but much like soccer it is savored worldwide.  Whether or not Puerto Rico becomes the 51st state to join the United States of America, baseball belongs in the Caribbean.  I would love to see the Toronto Blue Jays play the San Juan Rays.

*** The views and opinions expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of mlbreports.com ***

Alex Mednick is a Baseball Writer and Analyst with MLB Reports.  He has both played and followed the game extensively his entire life.  Alex grew up in New Haven, Connecticut—right in the crossroads of Red Sox Nation and The Yankee Empire.  Somehow, he dodged the bullet of joining the war between these two teams, and a love affair between the Toronto Blue Jays and Alex formed.  Growing up in Connecticut, Alex Mednick idolized Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar When he was 19 he moved to Saint Petersburg, Florida.  Here he attended Eckerd College and continued fulfilling his love for baseball.  Tropicana Field was 5 minutes from his apartment, and there were 5 spring training camps within an hour drive.  Alex graduated from Eckerd in 2010 with a B.S. in International Business and dual minors in Spanish and Management.  Most importantly, he met his amazing wife in college, and the two now reside in Stuart, Florida.

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Posted on November 15, 2012, in MLB Teams: Articles and Analysis and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Rays can’t move from St.Pete (because of the stadium contract with the city). Reinsdorf (owner of White Sox) has even threatened the idea of contraction, again….. Probably because the Rays and Athletics cant meet the minimum standards of a MLB organization. I like the Rays team. Keeping them together would be cool. But how do you get them out of their very long term lease?
    I see how this team could thrive playing in the NL East. I can also see the Phillies kicking butt in the AL East; but not sure if any team in the NL would even consider moving to the AL. The Astros would have never switched, if they weren’t forced to as part of the bankruptcy/sales agreement.
    San Juan has great fans. But they don’t have a MLB caliber stadium. Is there anyone willing to build a new stadium or upgrading Hiram Bitthorn by at least doubling the stadium capacity?
    How about contracting the Rays and then expanding. I know there would be a lot of legal issues with that; but it would be a way to get out of the lease with St.pete. Maybe even demote the Rays to an independent AAA team until they get an MLB caliber facility in St.Pete. Expand by at least three teams. Then the players union would hopefully not object to contracting the Rays. Promote the Rays AAA team (Durham Bulls) as one of the new teams and have a San Juan team as another with the condition that all new expansion teams must pay a 375 million dollar expansion fee and an additional 25 million to any team losing territorial rights and they must have a 35000 seat MLB caliber facility for at least half the home games. If MLB could waive the barnstorming rule, again; San Juan cold host 30 or so games until someone can step up and build them a stadium. If the President of the USA lessens restrictions/allows exceptions (Bush and Obama both have in the past for WBC and other foreign investors), some games could be hosted in the much closer city of Havana, Cuba. Instead of calling the team Havana or San Juan, call them the West Indies Sugar Kings. Leave the Rays name in St.Pete til they get their facility. Place them in NL East.

    • KG Man: thanks so much for your really thoughtful response. It’s a real delight anytime somebody takes the time to really share their thoughts and respond with so much care.

      I touch very briefly on the Rays 25 year agreement with the City of Saint Petersburg and notioned that if anything like a move were to actually happen, it would have to be fair to St. Pete. I didn’t go into much speculation of what kind of agreement it would be, partly because the entire article is purely based on a hypothetical situation and partly because I’m not qualified to structure these kinds of agreements. I do agree, that it would have to be fair to St. Pete and Pinellas County, because they are losing a lot more than just revenue if the Rays were to no longer have a presence at The Trop.

      I really like the idea of integrating baseball more into the Caribbean. As far an MLB caliber stadium goes, I think that financiers and developers have proven that even when there is no money, and their really is no viable way…there still is a way! The money will come from somewhere…or at least be promised by someone else at a later point. We’ve been spending money that doesn’t exist now for almost 12 years and ultimately you have to give in…you can’t bail out a boat that is already sunk. So before the entire financial system collapses and turns on its head, we might as we build great infrastructure funded by the promise of make believe money!

  2. One big question is who would pay the MLB ticket prices in Puerto Rico with a median household income of $19,000-$20,000 according to my quick Internet research. We have proven that nice TV ratings are only part of the answer. They would need fans in the stands too for 81 home games!

    • Hi Joe, thanks for your response and your time. I really appreciate it! This is a good point, and a notable concern. The median household income in 2012 in P.R. was actually $27,000…still not a demonstration of wealth and free spending money. But Puerto Rico is actually a coin with two sides, the economic balance is even more out of whack than in the USA. It is frightening to think that over 40% of families in Puerto Rico live below the poverty level (although this is according to USA standards, and island life and expectations are significantly different). What is crazy about this is that while 40% live below the poverty level, P.R. is a relative powerhouse economically. Per Capita, it has the highest GDP in South America, Central American and the Caribbean. Now, a large part of this GDP comes from U.S. subsidies and a reliance on tourism, but a baseball team would also help these figures. I agree, that there are reasons a baseball team hasn’t already been brought to P.R. and economics is a large part of it. But it would be a very nice development for the MLB to spread into the Caribbean, both for the area and for MLB. It may not be completely plausible now, but maybe over time. The lowest median income of any U.S. state last year was Mississippi last year with $39,000…a market that wouldn’t support baseball and doesn’t while having a markedly higher p/c income. However, the disparity of wealth in Mississippi is much lower than in P.R. 40% of Puerto Rican’s live below poverty and that plays largely into the 27,000 figure…the other 60% are doing significantly better than $27,000. Puerto Rico, as opposed to Mississippi is a baseball culture, and an unbelievable proud nation that would rally behind their country’s team. It isn’t something I imagine being taken lightly, and even if tickets are only marketable to 60% of the country, that is still 2.1 million proud, baseball loving consumers. Milwaukee has a baseball team and their city only has 600,000 residents, with the metro population at just 1.5 million people. The median household income in Milwaukee from 2011 was $32,000. The Brewers are doing a lot better economically than a lot of other small markets. Thanks again for your time, you raised a very good point.

  3. If you were to move any team from the NL East to the AL East, make it the Washington Nationals. Washington has always been an American League city, and is only a National League city because they found a place to put the Expos.

    • Hey Joe Q. I appreciate the response and like it. I could see this being a good fit as well and the Nats would be very competitive in the AL East. I like the Phillies/Nationals for the transition because A) they both would be competitive and B) both have a natural rivalry with the Orioles.

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