New Rays documentary features fight to bring baseball to Tampa Bay area

There are high hopes for a new season for the Tampa Bay Rays. It’s the 25th season for a baseball team that was born of a long drama of lies and political intrigue that stretched across the country.

One example: The governor of Illinois stopped the clock in that state’s legislature and strong-armed lawmakers to approve money that halted the move of the Chicago White Sox to St. Petersburg

"That was one of the most compelling parts of our documentary," said Paul Grove, the president and CEO of WEDU, the Tampa Bay area’s PBS station. 

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The documentary is called "Rise Of The Rays: A Devil of a Story."

Grove covered the Tampa Bay area’s quest for baseball when he was a local television journalist, and he always believed the story had the makings of a documentary. 

He enlisted the services of producer/director Eric Davis, who grew up in Brandon and watched the Rays growing up. Davis was presented with a list of possible titles for the film. 

"The Devil of a Story was just so perfect because when we began it was the Devil Rays, and there's a lot of Devil in these details," he said. 

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They are the details of the many major league teams that seemed to be heading for the Tampa Bay area – either by moving from other cities or through expansion. There was also another detail: It was unclear just what city was trying to get a team. 

"Because it was Tampa vs. St. Petersburg for some time, they were both battling to get the team," said Grove.

The documentary introduces viewers to a mild-mannered assistant city manager in St. Petersburg who became the power player for chasing down a team. Frank Morsani, known now as a philanthropist, was then the would-be owner of a team. 

The documentary features interviews with Morsani where he reveals details and emotions that weren’t at the surface in those days. 

The producer said when many years pass, people often open up more about what happened. Several important figures did for this film, including Morsani, former St. Petersburg Mayor Bob Ulrich and Jack Critchfield, who was a top corporate leader who became an important player in the pursuit of a team.

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The documentary chronicles the controversial decision to build the Florida Suncoast Dome, that would eventually become Tropicana Field. Grove and Davis say they wanted the film to interest both long-term residents and new arrivals to the area. 

"They think this is Champa Bay, and we're winning all these titles in every sport, but really there was a huge struggle to bring baseball here," said Grove. "There was a huge struggle to bring baseball here, seven failures that's extraordinary how many time's baseball said no to this community." 

Former Rays owner Vince Naimoli is portrayed as the hard-nosed businessman who became the closer, securing the expansion franchise after threatening lawsuits. 

The documentary is a roller coaster that rolls from the earliest days of spring training in this area to the present moment where, in their 25th season, it’s still unclear if the team will remain in St. Petersburg or move to Tampa. 

"You can fight with your brother, and then you make up and, hey you're good buddies now, but the competition is still here," smiles Davis, knowing that unfolding events in could provide a sequel to this baseball saga that seems never ending.

The new documentary, "Rise of the Rays: A Devil of a Story," debuts Thursday, March 30 at 9 p.m. on WEDU PBS. It is scheduled to air again on Sunday April 2 at 6 p.m.

It’s also streaming on