Tampa Bay—a place to move a team to, and from

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Back in the 1910s, St. Petersburg mayor Al Lang tried to lure big league clubs to St. Petersburg for spring training. The city expanded a grandstand for the ballpark at Coffee Pot Bayou and proceeded to try and woo a team to spend their February and March in a small town that served no liquor. Teams turned them down initially, but soon St. Pete became a regular Grapefruit League destination. The Cubs were the first to show up. The Yankees trained there during Babe Ruth’s heyday. The Yankees trained there for so long that the ballpark became known as Huggins-Stengel Field. In the end Al Lang’s strategy worked.

When it came to luring a big league franchise to Western Florida, the city of St. Petersburg tried Al Lang’s plan all over again. Passed over for expansion in the early and late 1960s as well as in 1977, they needed to build a ballpark before they could get a team. As early as 1983 there was talk of building a multi-purpose stadium for the Buccaneers to share with a potential baseball team. By the mid 1980s, the plan was to build a baseball-only park based upon Royals (now Kauffman) Stadium, with a tent covering the field. By the late 1980s, a new design was put into place, which at the time was state of the art: A permanent non-retractable dome that was slanted. Somehow this would keep the place cooler. Don’t ask me how.

By the late 1980s not only was the $85 million 43,000 seat dome, then named The Sun Coast Dome, under construction, but they had a potential tenant. The White Sox were playing in a decaying Comiskey Park to dwindling crowds and little interest, especially compared with the cross-town rival Cubs. White Sox general partners Eddie Einhorn and Jerry Reinsdorf found themselves stuck dealing with the machine politics of Chicago to get a new ballpark in the suburbs—Florida came knocking. They saw Florida, then untapped as a big league market, as a potential gold mine.
The White Sox would be rechristened the Florida White Sox. Instead of having to share Chicago, they would have their own state. Four million permanent residents as well as many millions more tourists came to the area each year. It seemed like a much easier sell to potential fans than the South Side of Chicago. Plus the state had low property taxes, and it looked as if they would be able to secure loans to relieve the White Sox’s massive debt. In 1988 it seemed like a done deal that the White Sox would do what the Dodgers, Giants, Braves, Browns and A’s had done more than a generation before and let their original home become a one team town.

Then the Illinois State Legislature in 1989 voted to help pay for a new ballpark across the street from Comiskey. Appropriately enough in the year that the White Sox were featured so prominently in Field of Dreams that they voted to build it so they wouldn’t leave. The New Comiskey Park opened in 1991. Now called U. S. Cellular Field, the cold and emotionless park was the last of the Pre-Camden Yards baseball stadiums. The White Sox won the World Series in 2005 but remain in the shadow of the Cubs.

The Sun Coast Dome was built and simply sat there unused. Instead, it found its greatest use in its two decades of existence—as a bargaining tool. By the late 1980s and early 1990s there were four potential cities available for Major League team relocation. Mile High Stadium in Denver, Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami and RFK Stadium in Washington could all be temporary homes for a baseball team. Only Tampa Bay had a permanent home waiting for a tenant. They seemed like a lock for the baseball expansion to take place after the 1992 season. Instead Denver and Miami made more aggressive pitches, and the Rockies and Marlins were born. Teams like the Twins and Rangers threatened to move to Florida, only to get new leases or stadiums while the Dome in St. Petersburg hosted Monster Truck rallies and Tampa Bay Lightning hockey games to justify its existence.

The Giants’ flirtation with Tampa Bay was even more intense than that by the White Sox. When Bob Lurie could not get the city to pay for a new downtown ballpark. When relocation options to Santa Clara and San Jose proved to be fruitless, he sold the club to Vince Naimoli who had the intention of moving the team to the Sun Coast Dome. There were Tampa Bay Giants T-Shirts printed (the “Florida” moniker was co-opted by the new Marlins team) and a rally held in St. Petersburg. Sure Miami would get a new expansion team, but Tampa Bay would have the established franchise with big league stars like Will Clark and Matt Williams.

But the National League did not approve the sale and soon Peter Magowan swooped in with his Safeway money to keep the team in the Bay Area. He also brought in Barry Bonds to put some butts in the seats and eight years after threatening to move, the Giants moved into Pacific Bell Park, arguably the best of the new retro ballparks. With the 2010 World Series between the Giants and the Rangers, both home parks were built in the wake of a threat to move to Tampa Bay.

It can be argued that the worst thing to happen to Tampa Bay baseball was actually putting a team in the dome. The idea of Tampa Bay being a baseball success story waiting to happen was so much more glamorous than the reality. It’s like the promise of a third Godfather film or the prequels to Star Wars or a fourth Indiana Jones film were all so much more exciting than the disappointing end product. Like the films mentioned above, it was clear right from the beginning that Tampa Bay major league baseball was a big mistake.

The team itself of course was a mess, but most expansion teams are. It was appropriate that they were named Devil Rays for a bottom feeder, which is where they stayed in the standings. The team’s strategy of getting as many sluggers as possible was appropriate for the steroid era but not very effective in chasing down the Yankees or Red Sox. Once great hitters like Wade Boggs, Fred McGriff, Greg Vaughn and Jose Canseco appropriately used Tampa Bay as a retirement home, collecting one last big payday while wearing one of the worst uniforms in baseball history. The first 10 seasons in Tampa Bay were so nondescript that the only highlight was the mop-up relief appearance by Jim Morris that inspired the movie The Rookie.

But worse than the team was the venue that so many teams threatened to call home. When it was rechristened Tropicana Field in 1998, it was out of date before the first pitch was thrown. The idea of a permanent dome was made unfashionable with the opening of SkyDome in Toronto. And the notion of a ballpark located far away from the heart of the city was obsolete with the success of Camden Yards, as well as Coors Field and Jacobs Field. Not only did the Devil Rays play far away from downtown Tampa, but the stadium was built over hazardous chemicals left over from an old coal plant

And of course the interior was gray and drab and simply colorless. But nothing made the ballpark more absurd than the catwalks and rings hanging from the dome and the surreal ground rules they caused. If a ball hits the A ring then the ball is dead. If it hits the D ring then it is a home run, or something. The rules can be read here, but that is beside the point. Crazy rules to account for obstructions are fine when you are playing whiffle ball in the front yard but not in a Major League Ballpark. They might as well have “Ghost Runners” on base and remember who was on base after the players come back from lunch.

But there seems to be something else deeply wrong with baseball in St. Petersburg. Stuart Sternberg took over the team and installed Andrew Friedman as GM and Joe Maddon as manager before the 2006 season. By 2008 they had better uniforms, a cooler name and a pennant winner, leap-frogging the Yankees in the standings and beating the Red Sox in the ALCS. They had the best kind of team you could hope for—young, home grown, energetic with likable personalities and a flair for the dramatic. And they played in front of a nearly empty stadium. They had the third lowest attendance in the American League when they won the 2008 pennant. And when the Rays had the best regular-season record in the American League for 2010, they had to give away free tickets to fill the stadium for the last home stand. With little revenue coming in, the Rays have started dismantling the team meaning their run for another American League pennant might be over.

If there is ever talk about moving a team, the Rays come up as a potential candidate. And talk of a new stadium has been floating around almost since their first season. All is not lost in Tampa Bay. The team does have solid local television ratings and their rise to pennant contention coincided with the worst economic climate since the Great Depression. But Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay has yet to be the gold mine that was envisioned by many teams over the years. No doubt looking at the Rays fortunes, the Giants, Twins, Rangers and White Sox are all thankful they stayed put. As for the Rays, where exactly can they go? There is no major league ready stadium sitting somewhere waiting to be filled by a team. Al Lang would find it a lot harder simply building a new park now than it was when he built a grandstand at Coffee Pot Bayou nearly 100 years ago.

References & Resources
MLB.com, NewYorkTimes.com, baseball-reference.com, CNNSI.cpm


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El Guapo
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El Guapo
Nice touch of history, tempered by some serious misinformation. Tropicana Field is not far from downtown. In fact, it is smack dab in downtown, but it is downtown St Petersburg, not Tampa. The city is a beautiful and pleasant place on Tampa Bay, across the bay from Tampa. It isn’t really even that far (an easy thirty minute Interstate freeway drive) from downtown Tampa. The Trop, while not open-air to balmy evenings (if one could call summer nights in Central Florida balmy), is a very pleasant place to watch a game. Doesn’t sound as if the writer has actually been… Read more »
cd
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cd
The trop is a bit dreary, and the catwalks (though rarely an issue) are unfortunately placed, but the roof and the AC are essential during the 6 month hot and rainy season.  As anyone who has attended a Buccaneer preseason game will tell you, August is no time to be outdoors sitting shoulder to shoulder.  Anyhow, while the trop is not ideally located, the real problem is the economy.  Even the cheapest of tickets + parking + $8 beers is hard to justify to the average shmuck whose home is worth half of what he owes on it.  Unfortunately, that… Read more »
Jordi Scrubbings
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Jordi Scrubbings

Although I agree that it seems like the author is unfamiliar with the area, I really enjoyed the historical aspect of this article. He did his homework. Hopefully he comes to a game at the Trop sometime soon.

Bob Rittner
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Bob Rittner
Good points El Guapo. I have read dozens of articles that focus on the lack of attendance in St. Petersburg. Most of them are superficial nonsense with no effort at providing context or understanding of the many factors affecting attendance, nor any effort to evaluate the gains the team has made. Ordinarily they are a snarky and lazy rehashing of cliched jokes. A recent article by Ringolsby is a sample of the rank ignorance and stupidity of most writers on the subject. I do not lump this in with those articles. I think, despite some errors, Paul Sullivan has made… Read more »
Ian G.
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Ian G.

“As for the Rays, where exactly can they go? There is no major league ready stadium sitting somewhere waiting to be filled by a team.”

Montreal.  I’m only half joking.  You can say all you want about lack of fan support, but take any team in baseball, have its greatest-ever season ended by a players strike, and then follow that up with a decade of mismanagement and glorified AAA status, and that teams would have its fanbase destroyed too.

The 1994 Expos drew far better than the 2008 or 2010 Rays did.

Bring back the Expos!

Erik H
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Erik H

In Jonah Keri’s upcoming book “The Extra 2%” he goes into great detail about the struggle this area had with acquiring a team. There’s far more to the White Sox and Giants situations than are played out here.

Mike
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Mike

My recollection is that the prior owner not only had a terrible team but also practically went out of his way to alienate people.

Even though the new owner is doing a good job, I am not sure what is a reasonable turn-around time for fan support, given that there is no long-term devoted fan base, as there are with pre-expansion teams.

Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan
WHOOPS! I will correct the Eastern Florida line. I am not saying in the article that baseball in Tampa Bay is a lost cause. In the early 1990s it was obvious that baseball had failed in San Francisco, Seattle and Cleveland. Then suddenly all three teams had a renaissance. And yes the new ownership has done everything in its power to make the team better and fix all the wrong things Naimoli’s group did. The solid TV ratings show there is a potential for interest. All I was trying to convey in the article was that there was no honeymoon.… Read more »
Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan
Erik H, no doubt there was more to the White Sox and Giants than simply Tampa Bay as a location spot. I was living in the Bay Area when the 1989 measure for a new stadium was on the ballot. Everyone thought the Giants winning the 1989 NL Pennant would put it over the top. Instead the Earthquake hit and any money not being spent on fixing the city looked wasteful. I have somewhere in my house an old Giants program showing the proposed stadium from 1989. I am glad they didn’t build it. It would have been like US… Read more »
Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan

Ian G!

I was actually writing a piece on my own blog about moving the Rays to Montreal. I was going to be tongue in cheek but I had written the first draft of it.

I will give you a shout out, Ian, in the final version.

E mail me at
if you want me to link anything of yours

Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan
As for the team itself, I think reports of the Rays demise are exaggerated. While I don’t think they will win the East for the third time in four seasons, I do think they have enough talent to field a winning product. As for the fans, I’ve interacted with a lot of very passionate Rays fans via e mail and on my blog who love to joust with me and my Red Sox fandom. I would love to see Tampa Bay become a viable team. It is possible… but hard to do as long as their perception is that of… Read more »
cd
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cd

Inserting a picture of pre-game batting practice to illustrate the point that Rays games are poorly attended is sort of unfair. 

That said, though the criticism was ill-advised, and though a playoff spot was all but locked up at the time, Price and Longoria had good reason to complain about the pathetic September crowds.

Jordi Scrubbings
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Jordi Scrubbings
Oh boy, another attendance discussion. As a Rays fan and part-time season ticket holder, I wrote about this on the site RaysIndex.com. You can look up the article entitled “The Battle for the Passion of the Florida Sports Fan”. Here was a key stat I found in researching fellow FL sports fans: Since 1980, “strictly from a major professional sport perspective, whereas there was once only two teams (the Bucs and Dolphins) for slightly less than 10 million people, there are now nine major professional sports teams (the Bucs, Dolphins, Jaguars, Magic, Heat, Lightning, Panthers, Marlins, and Rays) for under… Read more »
Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan
The point of this article wasn’t attendance. The point was comparing the two perceptions of Tampa Bay baseball: 1) It is the IDEAL place to move a team to 2) It is a franchise in trouble and might move And from those two extremes there seems to have been no middle ground. And yes I believe a huge part of it has to do with a facility that was outdated before the Devil Rays played their first game. And I concede that there is passion for the team as indicated by the TV ratings and the bloggers I have met… Read more »
Jordi Scrubbings
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Jordi Scrubbings
Paul I would amend one of your perceptions to “It WAS the ideal place to move a team to”. The market is so now saturated with things to do – sports or not – and has been since the early 1990s, that people just don’t come out unless they have a great reason. A Tuesday game in July vs the Royals is not a good reason. Seeing a band in a post-game concert is a reason for the casual fan. There is a reason St. Pete no longer hosts a minor league team and legendary Al Lang Stadium sits empty.… Read more »
Joe P.
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Joe P.

Tampa Bay has been “sullied” by a Red Sox Fan. No suprise there.

Feel free to post links to the comprehensive articles heaping dung on the A’s and the DBacks.

Otherwise, spare me the researched and thorough manifestations of your Boston sportsfan tribalism.

Erik H
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Erik H

Paul,

The Namoli group outbit McGowan for the team too.

big_fun
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big_fun
“Now called U. S. Cellular Field, the cold and emotionless park was the last of the Pre-Camden Yards baseball stadiums. The White Sox won the World Series in 2005 but remain in the shadow of the Cubs.” I hope the second sentence here is not meant to suggest the persistence of the conditions described in the first sentence. Since it opened, U.S. Cellular has been extensively rehabbed, including the replacement of all the seats and a complete makeover of the upper deck. And the attendance numbers have stayed pretty good even as 2005 recedes in the rear view. But outside… Read more »
Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan

Joe P…

Here’s a post I wrote about Arizona and their lack of support

http://sullybaseball.blogspot.com/2008/06/do-you-diamondback-fans-have-any-idea.html

Here’s one piece I wrote about Oakland and their TV coverage

http://sullybaseball.blogspot.com/2008/04/as-fans-you-cant-possbily-be-happy.html

And here I wrote about my incredulity that fans weren’t MORE upset by the lack of A’s coverage

http://sullybaseball.blogspot.com/2007/06/um-isnt-oakland-major-league-city.html

I’ve written many things criticizing the Red Sox and my fellow fans

http://sullybaseball.blogspot.com/2009/10/hey-red-sox-fans-lets-not-get-carried.html

I’ve praised the Yankees and players like Derek Jeter like with this one

http://sullybaseball.blogspot.com/2010/03/derek-jeters-bucket-list.html

And please cut and paste which part of the article that I wrote that was a Red Sox fan taunting the Rays.

Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan
big_fun I am sure my sentence was painted by the fact that I was at US Cellular in its first season when it was called New Comiskey Park. Now I will admit that the place looks a lot better now than it did back in 1991. That being said… they had the chance to be the ballpark that led the way in the retropark revolution. The designers who eventually dreamt up Camden Yards had a White Sox stadium proposal rejected. The Orioles park became the standard instead of the White Sox. Now attendance for the White Sox (a team I… Read more »
big_fun
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big_fun

Thanks, those are all fair points. I agree that the stadium is one of a number of “what ifs” from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when the team missed an opportunity to develop the fanbase. You’re right to point out that it’s still a Cubs town first, although not to the same degree that it was 15-20 years ago.

MikeS
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MikeS
Not sure what “being in the Cubs shadow” ahs to do with any of this.  Are you suggesting that the White Sox could have escaped that by moving to Florida?  They would have become a national (or even regional) phenomena?  There may still be more Cubs fans than Rays fans in Florida.  Moving to Florida would obviously not have improved attendance, even with the World Series. Just as big_fun pointed out the national fascination with calling US Cellular field sterile, there seems to be some unwritten rule that the White Sox can not be mentioned without comparing them to the… Read more »
Bob Rittner
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Bob Rittner
I think your last paragraph deserves more emphasis. This is a terrific team with excellent TV ratings. As for dismantling the team, I think such talk is premature. No doubt, losing Crawford is a blow, but there is an outfielder-in-waiting who may cushion that somewhat. The Rays plan both short term and long term, and while the challenge is certainly serious this year, the core of an excellent team remains and may contend in 2011 and beyond. The other losses are far less significant being primarily an apparently declining Pena and most of the bullpen. Both are replaceable. As for… Read more »
Rays fan
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Rays fan

Cool Story Bro

Mike D.
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Mike D.
Not for nothing, Paul, but don’t fall into the trap that the Yankees have *always* overshadowed the Mets, and *always* will. Until 1996, it was a widely held belief among the locals that New York was a National League town, and from 1984 until about 1991, the Mets were certainly the media darlings. In fact, the Mets also routinely outdrew the Yankees from when they moved into Shea in ‘64 until M. Donald Grant began burning the house down just as the Bronx Zoo was rising in ‘76. Shea Stadium vs. Yankee Stadium attendance, 1964-69 Shea 1964 1,732,597 1965 1,768,389… Read more »
Roger
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Roger
When we visited St. Pete in 2006, we arrived at the parking lot 45 minutes before the game, got in line for tickets more than 30 minutes before the game…and missed the first pitch…of a Tuesday evening game with total attendence of about 8,000.  Management showed an alarming disregard for the fans.  Even if this has changed, it takes a long time to change the public’s perception. I agree that the stadium is fine, and appropriate to the weather in St. Pete.  And, yes, it is a downtown ballpark; though it would benefit from a focus by the city on… Read more »
Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan

Mike, good point about the Mets in the 1980s.
But certainly since 1993, the Yankees have been top dog in New York.

Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan
It is dangerous to pick out the attendance from the 1960s about the Yankees and Mets. Remember that so many Dodger and Giant fans felt so burned after 1957 that they refused to go to Yankee Stadium and attending Met games at the Polo Grounds became a badge of honor. The Mets drew bigger crowds than the Yankees in the early 1960s even though the Yankees were consistently in the World Series because of the spurned National League fans… and then there was the novelty of the new stadium that coincided with the collapse of the Yankees in the mid… Read more »
Matt
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Matt

Great story…I don’t know why, but I love articles about expansion, franchise moves and the like.  What about Portland?  I honestly don’t know if they are a good choice for a franchise, but it is a lovely city and they seem to be looking for one: http://www.oregonstadiumcampaign.com/

Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan
I’ve always been intrigued by Portland as a potential baseball city. In the campaign literature you sent they showed the 4 potential places to build a park or to expand the current minor league ball park and according to their numbers, rain isn’t as big a factor as you would think The A’s need to move. I have lived in the Bay Area on and off for the past 3 decades. I’ve seen the A’s when they were great and when they were awful and there just isn’t enough interest to sustain two teams here. Portland would be interesting. Not… Read more »
Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan

Here’s a piece I wrote about moving franchises a few years ago

I wrote it before the Marlins broke ground on their new ballpark

http://sullybaseball.blogspot.com/2009/03/as-marlins-where-do-you-think-you-are.html

Josh F.
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Josh F.
The article is good, but it should have mentioned that regular season baseball is not working anywhere in Florida.  The Marlins have terrible attendance despite 2 World Series championships in their short history.  Further, the Marlins’ new stadium is being built in a horrible location that has neither parking or any public transportation (not to mention terrible traffic even without the stadium).  In other words, neither Florida baseball team will be successful in terms of attendance. The Rays are in a tough spot.  Tampa/St. Pete does not have a high-density population, and without the ability to draw from people leaving… Read more »
Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan
The perception and coverage of Chicago sports has the White Sox waaaaaaaaaaay behind the Cubs even though the White Sox have been better. It is similar to the Mets perpetual second banana status to the Yankees. The Cubs have a much more national presence than the White Sox. Ask Fox whom they would rather see in the World Series. Go around and see how many transplanted Cubs fans there are across the country compared to the White Sox. I remember when the White Sox won the World Series, so much of the national media was asking Cub fans for THEIR… Read more »
Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan
Playing in the Cubs shadow had to do with the White Sox courtship with the Tampa Bay region. In 1988 and 1989 the White Sox had ZERO presence in Chicago. I was at Northwestern University for the summer of 1989 and trust me, you had to ACTIVELY search for any White Sox coverage. Harold Baines, the most beloved White Sox player of that generation, was dealt while I was there. If you weren’t pouring over the sports section, you would never have known. The Cubs won the Division that year and EVERYTHING was Cubs Cubs Cubs. That’s why I brought… Read more »
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