ST. PETERSBURG — Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig waded into the increasingly tense stadium debate on Tuesday, saying the Tampa Bay Rays need a new ballpark "expeditiously."
Selig, who spoke exclusively to the St. Petersburg Times, said the small-market Rays cannot compete with larger ball clubs without the guaranteed revenue that comes with a new stadium.
He called the proposed Al Lang location outstanding, and promised St. Petersburg an All-Star Game if a waterfront stadium were built.
"There's no question that the Rays need a new stadium. There's just no question," Selig said by phone from his offices in Milwaukee. "Look, and I've said this in a lot of other places, I'm grateful they're having a wonderful year this year.
"But their stadium now just can't produce the revenue you need to be competitive on a year-in and year-out basis," Selig said.
Selig's comments capped another volatile day surrounding the proposed $450-million downtown ballpark.
Also on Tuesday, St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse said he planned to introduce a referendum question initiated by opponents of the stadium. The referendum, which could appear opposite the Rays' proposal on November city ballots, would limit the development potential at Al Lang Field and possibly stop the Rays' plans — even if voters approved them.
And Rays president Matt Silverman spent the morning pleading with business leaders to rally behind the team's two-pronged plan to redevelop Tropicana Field and construct a waterfront stadium.
Selig, baseball commissioner since 1992, said he was pleased by the small attendance gains the Rays have made at Tropicana Field this year. But for a team leading its division, it's not enough.
He also maintained that baseball can succeed in the Tampa Bay area.
"I could take you from city to city to all of our projects," said Selig before rattling off a list of cities initially wary of investing in a new ballpark. "Once a stadium's up, there isn't a city anywhere that's disappointed."
Selig said his office plans to help the Rays sell their plan.
"It's moved ahead in every other city," Selig said. "We've had a lot of tough times in other places, too. But every city has made the same choice when confronted. I'm certainly hopeful St. Petersburg will (follow)."
Nurse, meanwhile, said he will ask his colleagues this week to put a second referendum question on a November ballot that could kill the Rays' plans whether voters approve them or not.
The question would ask voters to cap the development potential of the Al Lang Field site to its current level. The intention, according to Nurse, is to prevent anything bigger (including the Rays' proposed 34,000-seat stadium) from being built there.
Nurse, a council member appointed in April to fill a vacancy, said he got the idea from former City Council member Virginia Littrell. Littrell is a leading member of the antistadium group Preserve Our Wallets and Waterfront.
"She's been pitching this idea around town for a few weeks," said Nurse, who said it's logical to infer that he opposes the Rays' plans. "People every day tell me what they want me to do."
If both questions were somehow approved by voters — the stadium and the development cap — Nurse, who has talked to city attorneys about the idea, said the question that receives the most support would prevail.
"The voters will decide if they want the stadium, not me," Nurse said in a followup e-mail. "I thought the alternative proposal to protect the Al Lang site also made sense to send to the voters."
Rays seeking support
Silverman and the Rays spent Tuesday morning trying to convince about 125 business leaders to back the Rays' proposal.
It was the team's most direct appeal to date, and perhaps signals the dire straits the team finds itself in. Besides Gov. Charlie Crist, few political or business leaders have indicated their support of the team's plans.
"It's a story that the Rays can't be left to tell ourselves," Silverman said. "The silence from the business community has been noticed." The St. Petersburg City Council is expected on Thursday to consider a first of three necessary votes to schedule a November citywide referendum on the plan. A recent St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll of St. Petersburg voters found that 68 percent oppose the new stadium.
"The political community is looking to hear the opinions of its constituents," Silverman said. "Right now, it's hearing primarily from people with red (anti-stadium) signs in their yard."