Will the Yankees' long-term commitment to Tampa get in the Rays' way?
TAMPA — There was a major baseball announcement here Monday, but it had nothing to do with the Tampa Bay Rays.
Instead, it involved the team's division rival.
The New York Yankees and Tampa Sports Authority unveiled plans for a $40 million renovation of George M. Steinbrenner Stadium that will update the team's 20-year-old spring training home with a new entrance, more shade, more gathering space and updated outfield concourses.
The deal includes a 21-year-extension of the Yankees' lease on North Dale Mabry Highway, a commitment that will keep the Bronx Bombers in Tampa through 2046.
Of course, all of this comes as the Tampa Bay Rays contemplate leaving the team's digs in St. Petersburg, potentially for Tampa. In fact, Tampa Sports Authority President and CEO Eric Hart is part of the Hillsborough County brain trust that will make the case to the Rays brass that they should leave and move east of the bay.
This sounds like the making of an awkward situation. The Yankees have had a strong footprint in the Rays' backyard for decades. Not only do their spring training games habitually sell out the 10,000-seat Steinbrenner Field, which also hosts their minor league affiliate the Tampa Yankees, but their fans are visible boosters when the two teams clash at Tropicana Field. And now they're going to stay here. For many, many years.
So how do the Rays feel about the prospects of a long-term Yankees presence in Tampa?
A Rays spokeswoman didn't have a comment, but Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan said he took that concern to both the Yankees and Rays.
The verdict: There's plenty of room in Tampa for both teams.
"I have point blank asked both teams that very same question and both have assured me that will not be an issue in future Rays discussions regarding a long-term facility in Tampa," Hagan said.
In a conversation with the Tampa Bay Times last year, Yankees Managing General Partner Hal Steinbrenner spoke highly of Tampa's fan base and believed the market could support a major league baseball team.
"I think it's a great sports town," said Steinbrenner, the son of the late Yankees owner for whom the team's spring training complex is named. "They've supported the Bucs, they've supported us, they've supported the Lightning. I would think they would support the Rays. It's certainly a large enough community, correct? And they're big sports fans. So I would hope so."
The Yankees aren't the only team with a presence in the area. The Philadelphia Phillies hold spring training in Clearwater and the Blue Jays come to Dunedin every February and March. All three teams attract not only tourists to the area but also the transplants and so-called snow birds who make up a large portion of the region's full- and part-time population.
But Hagan said that he has assurances that Major League Baseball continues to believe the area can and will sustain a franchise.
"Commissioner (Rob) Manfred recently told me that Tampa Bay is a very important market for Major League Baseball," said Hagan, for many years the No. 1 cheerleader for bringing the Rays east of Tampa Bay. "That was a quote. So that's not going to be an issue."