The Tampa Bay Rays’ pursuit of splitting its seasons in Montreal involved several stakeholders across the bay area; with Thursday’s surprise announcement that Major League Baseball has scrapped the novel approach, where does the region stand?
Major League Baseball’s (MLB) Executive Council was behind the about-face, more than two years after giving the team permission to “explore” the split season proposal. The Rays were waiting on approval to “pursue” the deal with Montreal, although team executives have already spent 2.5 years pursuing public favor for the proposal. In late November, team officials presented their latest pitch for the plan to the council at the quarterly owners meeting in Chicago.
“There’s not another option,” said Rays President Brian Auld as he pitched the plan to civic leaders at a Tiger Bay Club luncheon in Ybor City, just days before the quarterly meeting. “We don’t want to lose this team.”
The council, made up of eight franchise owners, declined to make a decision at the meeting. Commissioner Rob Manfred said they did not come to a conclusion due to more pressing matters, such as a new labor agreement that remains unresolved and has led to an ongoing lockout. At the time, Rays Owner Stuart Sternberg said the council could revisit the matter a few weeks later through a conference call. That call never materialized.
According to ESPN, Manfred relayed the news to Sternberg on Tuesday. News that Sternberg later called “flat-out deflating.” The decision was reportedly due to the complex logistics and risky long-term commitments involved in such a novel concept. MLB has yet to release a public statement on the matter.
During Thursday’s virtual press conference, a reporter asked Sternberg if he felt betrayed by his fellow owners after the amount of time, money and effort spent developing the plan.
“That’s a word,” said Sternberg. “That’s a word.”
Sternberg said MLB’s support and encouragement for the “sister-city” plan over the last 2.5 years made the council’s subsequent rejection “all the more painful for me.”
“I have no doubt that what we tried to accomplish with our sister-city plan will become accepted in all major league and professional sports,” said Sternberg. “Major League Baseball simply isn’t prepared to cross that threshold right now.”
At press time, calls and emails to Major League Baseball, from the Catalyst, had not been returned.
The Rays’ attendance woes at St. Petersburg’s Tropicana Field are well-documented. The team has reached the postseason seven times out of the last 14 years but never finished higher than 28th out of 30 teams in average attendance. Despite winning back-to-back American League East titles and coming off a World Series appearance, just 761,072 fans bought tickets to games at the ‘Trop last year. That total surpassed just two teams; the Oakland Athletics – also embroiled in stadium and relocation issues – and perennial cellar-dwellers to the south, the Miami Marlins.
The outdated stadium and the region’s geography bore most of the blame for low attendance. In 2008, just three years after Sternberg took control of the Rays, the team explored an open-air, waterfront stadium at Al Lang Field, home to the Tampa Bay Rowdies, a successful soccer franchise that the Rays also own.
For the last five years, the City of St. Petersburg and former Mayor Rick Kriseman worked to create a vision and select a developer for the ambitious redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site. City officials instructed developers to submit proposals both with and without a new stadium for the Rays. Kriseman selected Midtown Development’s proposal in December, one month before leaving office.
Unlike Sternberg, Kriseman said he was not surprised by MLB’s decision in a social media post on Thursday.
“I have always felt the split-season concept was an idea that faced great challenges,” said Kriseman. “As I have said consistently, I believe St. Pete is a full-time city. Tampa Bay is a full-time region.”
Earlier this month and shortly after taking office, newly-elected Mayor Ken Welch said he would revisit Kriseman’s selection. Welch credited the Kriseman administration’s work on the RFP process but said he wants to ensure that affordable housing on the 86-acre site is a priority. Welch made his desire to keep the Rays in St. Petersburg clear during the campaign trail and reiterated that stance in a statement following Thursday’s announcement by MLB.
“We are working with our partners and City Council to put together the best plan possible, which will work in conjunction with my planned evolution of the Tropicana Field master development proposals,” said Welch. “With this collaborative approach, I am confident we can partner with the Tampa Bay Rays to create a new and iconic full-time home for Major League Baseball in St. Petersburg while also achieving historic, equitable economic growth.”
Sternberg said he is aware of St. Petersburg and Pinellas County’s plans and said he is open to ideas and thoughts. He said that now was not the time to comment on either St. Pete’s or Tampa’s proposals for a new, open-air stadium, but he did say the franchise will “have to hit the ground running for opening day in 2028.”
The Rays’ lease with Tropicana Field expires after the 2027 season, and plans for a new stadium would have to be in place several years in advance to be ready for the 2028 season. Sternberg noted previous discussions to extend the lease for a few years, now an unlikely option.
“Now we’re going to have to come up with something that’s going to push it forward potentially,” he exclaimed. “Or just have us have opening day, most likely in 2028, in a different venue.”
Many civic and political leaders in Tampa are also back at the drawing board following the recent developments. In 2018, the Rays considered a stadium proposal in Ybor City. Those plans fell through, but talks between the team and city officials about building an open-air stadium on another site in Ybor as part of the split-season plan have gained steam recently.
Earlier this month, 40 business leaders penned an open letter supporting the split-season proposal and a boutique stadium in Ybor. While the smaller – and cheaper – proposed Tampa stadium would only host the team for half a season, Sternberg reiterated plans for it to host Rowdies soccer and other events. Reports indicate that the stadium would cost around $700 million, with the team and taxpayers splitting the cost.
“I know that they’ve (Tampa) got something – they had something planned that would be of great civic value over there,” said Sternberg.
Sternberg said that very few – if any – people in Tampa initially supported the idea. “The people who were supporting us here were people whose minds were changed. Or who went along with open minds … and saw that we had a plan that could be really great for this area.”
In a Thursday social media post, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said the ultimate goal was to keep the Rays in Tampa Bay, and she will continue that pursuit.
“We had been working on both sister city and full season proposals, and now we can focus all of our energy on a full season,” said Castor. “I am optimistic Rays baseball will call Tampa Bay home for many years to come.”
Sternberg said that previous attempts by the team to build a new stadium in either Tampa or St. Pete did not garner the same kind of response as the more recent proposal for split seasons. He wondered if more fans and civic and political leaders are now speaking out because they genuinely believe they could lose the team. He said the newfound support could be a silver lining.
“Maybe if nothing else comes out of this than the idea that people are a little more attuned to what’s going on … that could be helpful,” said Sternberg. “Whether it’s in Tampa, St. Pete – in the Tampa Bay region.”