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The Ultimate Tampa Bay "What If?"

For several days the past few weeks I had made it a point to tape every San Francisco Giants game in the hope of preserving Barry Bonds' 755th and 756th career homeruns on DVD. While recording that record-breaking homerun a few days ago, I had one of the strangest thoughts enter my head from nowhere. I didn't wonder about Bonds doing steroids, or Major League Baseball's blind eye and deaf ear to shattering homerun records in the late 1990s and early 21st century. Nope, the thought that crept into my mind while Bonds was celebrating his feat was, "That could have happened here."

Bonds' achievement had all sorts of quirks and coincidences in it. Included is the fascinating story of how Mike Bacsik's father once faced Henry Aaron in 1976 when Aaron was also sitting on 755 career homers, or that at the time of the homer Bonds was amazingly a triple away from hitting for the cycle. But what's most amazing for me, and for several thousand locals who were living here in 1992, is the fact that Bonds clubbed is 756th homer in the sparkling AT&T Park EXACTLY 15 years to the day when the Giants had an agreement to move to St. Petersburg.

"TAMPA BAY HAS GIANT DEAL" screamed the St. Pete Times in a special "Baseball Extra" edition. Banners at the then-Florida Suncoast Dome proclaimed "Land of the Giants" and "This is the Giants Dome". DJs on local radio stations hooped and hollared over John Fogerty's "Centerfield". People involved in the agreement, headed by Vince Namoli, quoted the whispering piece of wisdom from the movie "Field of Dreams" as if it were true; "If you build it... they will come". The city of St. Petersburg did build that dome they were told not to, and 2 1/2 years after it opened somebody came. I even remember sitting in my high school cafeteria sketching out how the interlocking "T-B" would look on the road jersies instead of the "S-F" for San Francisco. But alas, it was all too good to be true.

Those living here then remember the pain of what happened next. After years of trying to land a big league team, just like that... it was gone. Suddenly the $115-million offer from Namoli's group wasn't good enough in MLB's eyes. Strings were attached by new commissioner Bud Selig that changed the financial structure of the deal, and more importantly bought time for a San Francisco-based group led by Peter Magowan to rally the city and other National League owners to kill the deal. Departing owner Bob Lurie's sudden wish to stick around to collect part of the expansion fee from the Marlins and Rockies didn't help the situation any more. Despite the fact the Giants would have made (according to studies, even agreed upon by Magowan) $15 millon MORE PER SEASON in Tampa Bay, the National League suddenly decided teams shouldn't relocate even though it had been 22 years since a team did. Even though the Giants had experienced a free fall in the standings to 5th in the old NL West ("bested" only by the Dodgers' miserable 99-loss season), and even though crummy Candlestick Park hosted the second-lowest attendance in the NL in 1992, the owners somehow thought it was best to keep the Giants where they were.

After that Namoli and his investors talked lawsuits (and followed through on them). The Lightning took to the ice that fall and eventually moved the ice to the dome for three seasons where they set NHL attendance records in a market that wasn't supposed to be successful in hosting hockey. The Buccaneers started winning for the first time since Ronald Regan began his presidency. More people started moving to the Tampa Bay area from New York, Ohio, and all points north. The baseball vibe died down even though the Devil Rays were starting up. Instead of pulling in an established franchise with stars, promising rookies, and a full farm system, we got stuck with a then maniacal Namoli and a franchise starting from the ground up. By 2002 the San Francisco Giants were in their brand new, privately funded ballpark on the water downtown, just five outs from winning their first World Series since they played in the Polo Grounds. In Tampa Bay, we had Jason Tyner and "heart and hustle". It's really cruel when you think more about it.

That brings me back to Bonds. Bonds was brought in by Magowan before he even owned the team, but with the sale getting approved to keep the Giants where they were Bonds would stay there too. Many people credit that one transaction as keeping the Giants in San Francisco despite the drawn-out eight-year process it took to finally vacate Candlestick. You have to wonder, if the favors fell Namoli's way, would he have ponied up the money to get Bonds on board and get the Tampa Bay area more excited about baseball? Would the fervor of Floridians clamoring for a big league team with a bonafied star on the roster pushed the NL owners to let the Giants move? Even though Bonds signed with the Giants because San Francisco isn't far from his childhood home of San Mateo, California, is it possible he would have signed with Tampa Bay because he would have been THE man on the team? The proverbial midnight mayor of Tampa, St. Pete, and every little town in the market?

And what about the Giants' success in the 1990s? Although MLB's realignment in 1994 likely would have had the Tampa Bay Giants in the new NL East, one has to wonder if the three division titles and one league championship would have transpired here against the Mets, Marlins, Braves, Expos/Nationals, and Phillies. Would the success Bonds and new manager Dusty Baker brought to the Giants in 1993 make Tampa Bay a true "baseball market" from day one like it revived San Francisco's status as a baseball town? Unfortunately, all of those questions are preceded with baseball's greatest question, "What if?"

Time has healed all wounds, and the Tampa Bay area for the most part has moved on from what happened between August 7th and Thanksgiving 1992. But as the Rays try to do everything on and off the field to win back fans in their 10th season, one has to wonder how different things could be had the black and orange unis of the Giants marched out on to the Astroturf of the Florida Suncoast Dome for the first time in April 1993.

One has to wonder, what if?

Some notes from Tampa Bay Raysland:

  • I know I'm going to sound like a Joe Maddon-hater here, and I honestly don't mean to, but what's with all the love getting thrown Maddon's way for putting James Shields and Scott Kazmir back-to-back in the rotation? Most teams put their two best pitchers 1-2. Shields as Kazmir are the best two pitchers on the team. Seems like common sense to me.
  • I don't care what's gotten in to Carl Crawford or Dioner Navarro recently. If it keeps the Rays from losing 100 games again this season, I'm all for it.
  • In case you weren't keeping track, the Rays are still three games WORSE this season (44-70) when compared to 114 games into last season (47-67). Alot of progress has been made with the team this season, but progress only counts if you have more wins than losses. There's still quite a bit of work to do here going into 2008.
  • Every local team is on the logo/uniform change agenda and the Rays announced they will show off theirs in November during the Bucs' off week (smart move). A little bridie tells me the name change to "Rays" is almost a done deal, but the color scheme may surprise you.
  • The sky is blue, grass is green, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Add Johan Santana's recent assessment of the Twins (i.e. they don't pay their star players well so they lose them to free agency or trade them) to that list. This is baseball's worst-kept secret, yet fans keep blindly throwing accolades to the Twins for how well they do on a low budget. Yes the Twins have had a few playoff appearances over the past several years, but they haven't won a championship since 1991. Isn't that why you play the game?
  • Not to make light of a horrible incident, but Hennepin County (Minnesota) is footing the bill for roughly 2/3 of the estimated $522-million Twins stadium in Minneapolis. Do you think a few people wish that money was going to infrastructure to make sure another old bridge doesn't collapse after 40 years of harsh Minnesota winters and stop-gap repairs?
  • There are many famous radio and TV calls in the history of baseball. Shortly after Barry Bonds hit his 755th career homer in San Diego, the FSN Northwest crew let us be known, "This drive to history is brought to you by Chevrolet". Eat your heart out Russ Hodges.
  • Finally, while driving south on the Veterans Expressway a few days ago, I saw a billboard for the Tampa Tribune near exit four. It featured a few young kids, around 8 or 9-years-old, with the caption "Nothing is More Tampa". One of the kids was decked out in Yankees gear. Figures.