0530_largeWhile looking for something else, I came across a story in the May 30, 1988 issue of Sports Illustrated, titled “The Sunshine Sox.

For many of you, the story of the White Sox nearly moving to the Bay Area is well-known. However, younger fans may not be familiar with the turbulent time in the 1980s when several teams used the Tampa-St. Pete area as leverage to blackmail their own cities into building new stadiums.

It’s ironic in a sense. Many fans of teams like the White Sox, Mariners, and Giants make fun of The Trop. And yet, if St. Pete didn’t agree to build a stadium on the cheap in an effort to lure those teams, they may not have their own new beautiful ballparks.

As for me, I was young and remember getting excited every time it seemed like another team was moving to the area. I even owned a Florida White Sox cap at one point

If I remember correctly, it was the White Sox that came the closest to moving*, striking an 11th hour deal in June, 1988 to keep the team in Chicago. And this article in Sports Illustrated shows just how close the White Sox came to leaving Chicago’s south side.

In fact, the column is written with a tone that makes the move sound like it was inevitable.

Here are a few of the more telling comments in the article:

  • E.M. Swift calls Florida “an attractive baseball market” noting that it is expected to be the third largest population among states by the 1990s (It is still 4th). He also points to the 35 million annual tourists.
  • The Sox were planning to play the 1989 season at Al Lang Stadium in St. Pete which was to be enlarged from 7,500 to 20,000 seats.
  • The father-in-law for then-White Sox pitcher Bobby Thigpen was planning to give the White Sox a $10 million loan to cover the costs of moving.
  • The proposed lease for The Trop was “not as favorable” as the lease to remain in Chicago but the team believed the TV and radio money would be a lot better. The White Sox were making just $9 million in broadcast rights in Chicago and St. Pete told the team they could make $10 million per year in Florida.
  • In addition to wanting a new stadium, the White Sox wanted to get away from the Cubs who had only recently taken over as the most popular team in town.
  • At the time, White Sox games were on cable TV and only 34% of Chicagoans had cable.
  • And there was this ironic statement from a White Sox official: “Draw a circle around Comiskey Park with a 30-mile radius…You’ll find that 40 percent of that area is in Lake Michigan. Twenty percent is poor. The other 40 percent is inhabited by Cub fans.” Substitute “Tampa Bay” for Lake Michigan and “Yankees and Red Sox fans” for Cubs fans and you’ve got the Trop.
  • Or this statement about the White Sox wanting a stadium in the Chicago suburbs: “Einhorn and Reinsdorf wanted a ballpark that was accessible to the guy, and the family, who wouldn’t put up with the hassles of an urban commute.”
  • The widow of former White Sox owner Bill Veeck closed the story with this statement: “I’m convinced they’re going to leave…The real movers and shakers of this town don’t care if they go or not. There’s no one to spearhead a drive to keep them. Chicago is totally happy with the Bears, the Cubs and Michael Jordan.”

Of course, the White Sox did not leave. They got their new stadium and eventually the Trop got the Devil Rays. But it is fun to look back and wonder “what if?”

* Several people have pointed out that the Giants came closer to moving noting that the Giants had an agreement in place to be sold. This is all fuzzy and maybe somebody else can chime in, but my recollection was that there was always a concern that the owners would not approve the Giants move to St. Pete. On the other hand, it was considered a foregone conclusion that the White Sox move would be approved. Either way, both came very, very close.

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7 Comments

  1. Sledge says:

    I remember that excruciating process. My memory is that the Giants came closer to moving than did the Sox, but it is a moot point. Interesting to read about in retrospect.

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  2. Gus says:

    The Giants were by far the closer team to moving (although both were REALLY close) because:

    1. The Trop was standing and ready for baseball in 1992 when the Giants were purchased; it was under construction in 1988.

    2. The Giants were purchased by the Naimoli-Piazza-Terendi group who were Tampa-based; White Sox were always owned by the same group who owned the Chicago Bulls; the local ownership was what made the Giants deal feel more real.

    3. San Francisco was resigned to losing the Giants; I attended a game at Candlestick in August 1992 (after the sale was annoucned) wearing my "Tampa Bay Baseball" shirt; people wished me luck. There was no hope of them being saved because there was no political will to build a stadium there (in fact, they built the new stadium with private money).

    4. Only NL President Bill White (with the help of the St. Petersburg Times' stories basically accusing Mike Piazza's dad of insurance fraud) got in the way of the Giants move, noting the size of the northern California market for the NL (back when the leagues were more independent) and the "questions" about the ownership group. White blocked the sale, found Peter McGowan as a white knight for SF.

    5. The similarities of the Trop to the White Sox stadium was not coincidental; the deal was we get the same stadium we are moving to; HOK cranked out the same design (the Trop is actually 2 stadiums -- the roof structure is basically laid on top of a HOK design (that goes back to the KC Royals stadium design --- if you look closely, KC, Chicago and TB all have basically the same stadium).

    6. The history of the Rays and the Trop would have been completely different if the White Sox (or the Giants) deals had gone through. To get an existing team would have energized the market. Instead we got a long drawn out expansion process, got beat by Miami, had the worst ownership group in baseball and the worst 10 year record of any expansion team ever. A hangover that continues cloud the franchise to this day, although one that is slowly but surely being lifted.

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  3. zenny says:

    Yep, it was a frustrating time. Don't forget that the Twins also seriously considered moving here and used that leverage to gain a promise from the state of Minnesota to build them what became Target Field.

    With all those close calls followed closely by the expansion snub, I bought a t-shirt that said "Hey baseball!" and featured a baseball glove drawn with a middle finger sticking up. I actually refused to pay attention to my favorite sports for a few seasons after all that.

    Besides the accurate points mentioned by Gus, another reason why (D-)Rays fandom got off to such a slow start was that we were rewarded the franchise during the strike of 1994-95 when the other owners needed the hefty franchise fee to recoup lost cash flow. It was a horrible time to try to generate excitement for a new team, but all MLB cared about was $$$ to continue the labor strife. I'm getting disgusted all over again just typing about it.

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  4. Scot says:

    Very nice. One of your best postings ever given its content and relevance.

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    • Scot says:

      Thanks for the data and lack of unsubstantiated comments such as 90% of all wild pitches should be blocked by the catcher or that probabilities of infield shifts should success 100% of the time else there should be no shift at all. ;-)

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  5. Neil deMause says:

    Jerry Reinsdorf later claimed that he only threatened to move to St. Pete for "leverage" for a new stadium in Chicago:

    http://www.cigaraficionado.com/webfeatures/show/id/Playing-Hardball_6085/p/5

    Bob Lurie, on the other hand, actually did want to move the Giants, but was blocked by MLB. (Thus leading to an antitrust suit threat, and ultimately the creation of the Rays.)

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  6. Political_Man says:

    I remember the big excuse for the Giants being that with the Marlins coming into existence that it would put two teams from the National League in Florida. At that time the AL and NL were almost run as seperate leagues and AL owners were opposed to the move solely for that reason.

    Had a vote gone down for the White Sox I'm not sure it would have had the same opposition. You had an existing owner wanting to move instead of an outsider trying to make a move. Not to mention the fact that the move would have left Chicago entirely to the NL. The Chicago deal happened when expansion was a gleam in MLB's eye and there was a lot of talk about MLB seeing Florida as a virgin market with a lot of possibilities.

    I tend to think my recollection is correct because I did not live in Florida at the time and had never even considered it. I have always been interested to sports franchise moves when the subject has come up Just something that's always captured my attention.

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