As it’s currently construed, Major League Baseball in the Tampa Bay area simply is not going to work. The Rays play in a domed stadium that has the charm of a Costco, in a location that almost always requires agonizingly long car trips involving traffic-choked bridges and in a part of the world populated by fixed-income seniors, service-industry workers and few of the corporations that usually purchase luxury suites.
The solution, then, is to move the Rays somewhere, either to a new stadium in the area or to a new part of the country. But negotiations for a new arena in the Tampa Bay area have stalled, most recently in December when plans for a new stadium across the bay in Tampa fell through, and so we have the news that broke last week: The Rays are pursuing a plan to play part of the season near their current home and part of the season in Montreal, which has been bereft of baseball since the Expos decamped for Washington after the 2004 season.
The idea was met with a healthy amount of skepticism, and for good reason: The Rays would have to build not one but two new stadiums, one of them in a foreign country. Their players, whose union almost certainly would have to sign off on the plan, would have to split their seasons between cities, at great disruption to their family lives. And the Rays likely would have at least court the approval — if not enter into some sort of ownership-sharing agreement — of the ownership team in Montreal that already has been pursuing a new franchise and likely would not like to share it with a city some 1,500 miles away.
Oh, and the team is bound to a legal agreement with the city of St. Petersburg that forbids them from negotiating with any other location.
Despite all these roadblocks, Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said Tuesday that the plan is not simply a good ideal or a great idea or the only idea left at his disposal. It’s far better than that.
“I’m confident it’s an amazing idea,” Sternberg said in his first public comments since news broke last week that MLB had given the team permission to explore the idea. “Every turn, every what-if, what-if, what-if, only leads to more opportunity, more fandom, more joys.”
Sternberg also dismissed cynics who think this is just a leverage ploy to get a new stadium built in the Tampa Bay area or that the team simply is clearing the runway for a permanent departure to Montreal or any of the other cities discussed whenever MLB relocation comes up (Charlotte, Nashville, San Antonio, etc.).
“To be clear, this is not a staged exit,’’ Sternberg said. “That thought has never entered my mind. This is not us taking even one glance toward a relocation to Montreal. I rejected that idea years ago and I continue to reject that idea today.
“This is not a page out of a playbook to gain leverage. We are focused on this plan. We are focused on how the Rays can thrive here in Tampa Bay. This is about Tampa Bay keeping its hometown team and Montreal having one as well — a permanent arrangement, a generational commitment to both communities.’’
As mentioned above, there are numerous stumbling blocks, the first being that the players are likely to disapprove.
“I don’t think any player would view moving midseason as workable,” agent Scott Boras told the Tampa Bay Times. “I don’t think anyone is going to want to take on something that is going to affect their family and the performance of their team to that level. … It puts a greater burden on every aspect of what a player goes through in a season. I just don’t see anyone approving that.”
There’s also the question of whether the Rays are even allowed to explore the plan. The team’s use agreement with the city of St. Petersburg, which owns the Tropicana Dome, states that it must “play all its home games” at the stadium unless the city approves of an alternative plan to play elsewhere. It also bars the team from even negotiating to play elsewhere without city approval, which came into play Tuesday when Sternberg said he had been in touch with the Bronfman family, the lead group trying to bring baseball back to Montreal. In response, the city attorney for St. Petersburg sent out a statement Tuesday saying the city had received formal assurances from the team that it would not conduct any formal negotiations with Montreal without city approval.
The team’s use agreement (not a lease, which is a key distinction) with the city runs through 2027. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman repeated his assertion Tuesday that the city wants nothing to do with the Rays’ plan and will not allow them to play elsewhere until the terms of the deal expire eight years from now.
“If Mr. Sternberg wishes to formally explore this concept with me and his desire to privately and fully fund a new stadium in the City of St. Petersburg, I am willing to listen,” Kriseman said. “The City of St. Petersburg will not participate in the funding of a new stadium for a part-time team. We remain receptive to partnering with the Tampa Bay Rays to redevelop the Tropicana Field site and build a new stadium for a full-time team. St. Pete’s future has never been brighter and every business and baseball team in America should want to be a part of it.”
Krieseman concluded his statement by hinting that relations between the city and team aren’t exactly good at this point.
"Finally, I believe progress moves at the speed of the trust. If Mr. Sternberg is serious about this idea or any other, it will require the reestablishment of a good working relationship with my office.”
Kriseman, it probably should be noted, must leave office in 2022 because he’s limited to two consecutive terms. The Rays might be hoping for a more agreeable successor.
The Rays averaged 30,941 fans in their inaugural 1998 season and drew more than 20,000 fans per game, on average, during a three-year run of success kick-started by their 2008 World Series appearance. But last year only 14,258 fans per game showed up to watch a team that finished 18 games above .500, a measure of apathy eclipsed only by the train-wreck Marlins to the east and the Rays’ worst box-office showing in 13 years. This year’s team is similarly good, and this year’s attendance is similarly bad (14,545 fans per game).
“We are at or near the bottom in every economic category in Major League Baseball,” Sternberg said Tuesday in describing his perhaps problematic attempt at a solution.