Learning to Keep Playing When Faced With Defeat

Learning to Keep Playing When Faced With Defeat

This is not a piece on the wisdom of public investment in professional sports stadia.

It is about how the various players in the most recent round of public discussion on the future of the Tampa Bay Rays baseball franchise have managed a difficult situation.

This past December, St. Petersburg’s “new” mayor (how long does one keep that appellation?), Rick Kriseman, brought the St. Petersburg City Council a deal that gave the team freedom to explore sites anywhere in Pinellas or Hillsborough County, something the Rays organization has been pushing for over the last six years (for a variety of business reasons). There was much more to the deal, of course, but that, for many, was the heart of the matter.

For the council, it was a sticking point, but not the fatal flaw. The defeat of the proposal seems to have hinged on the Rays’ opportunity to make millions off of the redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site (where the Rays currently play) after they left for greener pastures. This is about millions upon millions of dollars that would either go to the Rays organization, to the city and its residents, or to some other private partner(s). Not a small matter.

Mayor Kriseman put a lot of his newly minted political capital behind the deal. The Rays organization likewise took risks, making concessions even as they gained opportunities. If the deal fell through, it would be hard to recover those losses and take those concessions off the table in future negotiations.

And fall through it did.

So one would not be surprised to hear a few choice words after the defeat. Mayor Kriseman made an uncomplimentary comment about the Council preferring to hold workshops rather than offer leadership. All things considered, it was a modest jab at a tough moment.

The Rays were a little more circumspect. Rays president Brian Auld (whose unwillingness to renegotiate any significant elements of the deal with Council during the meeting appears to have reduced Council support for going forward) simply said that the franchise was disappointed, and that it was clear the Council thought that present arrangements were “in the best interest of the citizens of St. Petersburg,” rather than the proposed deal. There might have been some sarcasm there, but it’s hard to argue with the statement itself.

The lesson, however, is more about what has happened since. The day after the Council vote, Matt Silverman, president of baseball operations for the Rays, offered a positive assessment of the progress being made, despite the defeat. He indicated that he expected negotiations would continue and expressed hope of “an agreeable outcome.”

This month, Mayor Kriseman likewise has found a way to say good things about what has happened and what the future may hold. Appearing before the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club, the mayor again expressed concern about what he sees as too many committee meetings and not enough action by Council. However, he also struck a positive note, affirming his respect for Council role as an active participant in the process: “I think government works best when there’s good dialogue and when there is debate.” Referring specifically to the vote on the Rays deal, he added, “We’re not always going to see eye-to-eye. Hopefully, we don’t take it personally. If we lose a vote, we move on.”

Well said.

Of course, one also could say that both Mr. Silverman and Mayor Kriseman simply are doing what is strategically required. The mayor can’t ignore what happens to the Rays in the future (whether or not he might like to). The city has too much invested now, as does the mayor, simply to leave the situation alone. Likewise, the Rays are locked into a situation that does not work for them economically (not, at least, as they would like it to work). Their only avenue of positive escape passes through a Council vote.

But it’s one thing to be able to see what is the wisest course. It is another to hold to it when disappointed, embarrassed, or angered by criticism or defeat. We all face such situations, especially in public service. The question is, can we learn to keep playing at our best, even when faced with defeat?