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St. Petersburg city attorney reverses course on Rays

ST. PETERSBURG — A day after suggesting that the Tampa Bay Rays would like to leave the region, St. Petersburg's city attorney said the opposite: that the team hopes a new stadium and a successful business model will keep them here.

"I truly believe that they want to try to make it work here in the area,'' city attorney John Wolfe said Friday. "And they are doing that. They built a winning team, and I think they would love to have it work here.''

Wolfe's seemingly conflicting sentiments reflect ongoing tension over the Rays' desire to explore possible stadium sites in Hillsborough County and the city's desire to keep the team playing at Tropicana Field or in a new stadium somewhere else in St. Petersburg, such as a recently proposed site in Carillon business park.

During a discussion about Carillon during Thursday's City Council meeting, Wolfe said the Rays' "ultimate goal'' was to leave the region altogether.

In an interview Friday, Wolfe declined to comment on what evidence supports that statement. He also said, "My choice of words was probably not the best.''

But Wolfe did elaborate on his thinking.

It is possible that the Rays can succeed in the area over the long run, Wolfe said. "They have a chance to build a solid fan base. They are still early in the franchise, and their TV audience continues to grow.''

On the other hand, he questioned whether attendance in Tampa would be significantly better than in St. Petersburg. And if the Rays reach that conclusion, leaving could be their ultimate goal. "That would be the goal of any team,'' Wolfe said.

Though the Rays have said Major League Baseball is not economically viable at the Trop, they have not threatened to leave the region, Wolfe said. In fact, principal owner Stuart Sternberg has repeatedly said he wants to keep the team in Tampa Bay, Wolfe acknowledged, "and I have to take him at his word on that.''

However, Sternberg might sell the team to someone who would move it, Wolfe said.

City Council chairwoman Leslie Curran said Friday that she was not surprised by Wolfe's original comment that the Rays' "ultimate goal'' was to leave the region.

"I think that has been the talk for some time out there,'' she said. It's one of the first questions residents often ask when discussing baseball: Do the Rays want to be here?

Rays executive Michael Kalt declined to comment on Wolfe's statements.

The Rays will be invited to a council meeting next month when developer Darryl LeClair presents his plans for a Carillon stadium, Curran said.

"By presenting this and seeing their presentation, we will know whether the Rays are serious about staying in the area,'' Curran said. "It forces all of us to act."

Actually, it's not clear whether anyone but LeClair will do any talking.

The council agreed Thursday that members will not ask LeClair any questions at the meeting, to avoid weakening their legal position under the Trop contract.

The Rays have previously said they will not discuss LeClair's proposal unless the city frees them to pursue stadium possibilities in Hillsborough.

On Friday, Kalt declined to say whether Rays representatives would even attend LeClair's presentation.

"We have not yet received any invitation,'' Kalt said. "So we have not discussed it.''

Times staff writer Mark Puente contributed to this report.

St. Petersburg city attorney reverses course on Rays 08/17/12 [Last modified: Saturday, August 18, 2012 12:42am]
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