It's better to hear Stuart Sternberg name Tampa as a new Tampa Bay Rays home than Charlotte or Vegas

Tampa, Stuart Sternberg said. And in St. Petersburg, a mayor protested.

Hillsborough, Sternberg added. And in Pinellas, council members shuddered.

And with that, the Stadium Wars officially began. To this point, everything else — from the poor attendance to the quality of the market to the proximity of the stadium to your house — has been a nice little debate to keep us occupied while the catwalks rusted.

That changed Monday, when a sterner Sternberg announced he not only wanted a new stadium, he wanted to entertain the thought of moving it to the other side of Tampa Bay. The franchise, he said, "will not work in downtown St. Petersburg.''

Will it work in Tampa? At this point, no one knows.

On the other hand, isn't it preferable that Sternberg is talking about Tampa instead of, say, Charlotte? Or Las Vegas? Or Portland or San Antonio or Nashville?

In the end, isn't that what Tampa Bay fans should be discussing today? Above all, shouldn't they want some sort of resolution that will keep the Rays in Tampa Bay?

So how does this conclude? With Tampa Bay keeping its team? Or with moving vans headed for a faraway destination?

Keep this in mind: When it comes to relocating the Rays, the map has a lot of possibilities that are worse than Tampa. How long do you think it will take the other cities before they start to call? Put it this way: In the old days, how long did it take Tampa Bay to call San Francisco or Seattle or Chicago?

"If I were just coming into this, and you dropped me in the middle of the United States, this isn't going to be one of the top five markets that doesn't have baseball,'' Sternberg said. "But we're here. Our fans are here.''

Wait, you say. There are five markets better than this one? Five empty markets?

"Yes,'' Sternberg said.

Really?

"At least five,'' he said.

There are places he could move, Sternberg said, where the Rays would be among baseball's best 10 markets. However, he says, he is thinking about only Tampa Bay.

Eventually, that may not be the case. If Sternberg is ready to expand his thinking to Hillsborough now, what is to say that in another few years, he won't expand it to, say, New Jersey? Or Brooklyn? Or Hartford?

The clock is ticking. Tampa Bay may have four years, maybe six, to get something done. Eventually, however, Sternberg will get his new stadium in Tampa Bay, or he will get it somewhere else. '

Granted, it is hard to blame St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster for trying to protect an asset. After all, the Rays have a lot of years left on their lease, and the people who voted Foster into office did pay for the Trop.

On the other hand, the level of politicians harrumphing seems a little out of place when you remember the silence that greeting the Rays' waterfront stadium plan two years ago. At the time, there was no politician, and no business leader, who was willing to champion that stadium. These days, you wonder if the politicians would like to turn back time so they could jump on that proposal like a bad change-up.

The odd thing now is, according to Sternberg, he wouldn't accept that stadium now if it was gift-wrapped with a bow on it. Or any other stadium site in downtown St. Petersburg, for that matter.

"We will consider any potential ballpark site in Tampa Bay,'' he said, "but only as part of a process that considers every ballpark site in Tampa Bay.''

In other words, Sternberg wants to check out Tampa.

Let's be honest. Tampa isn't a slam dunk, either. There have certainly been enough empty seats at Bucs games and Lightning games lately. It's hard to believe that Tampa is so hungry for baseball it would pack the park every night, and yet those same fans won't drive across a bridge to see a game. And here's a question: Does Tampa have the money to build a stadium? (And history tells us that wherever a team moves, it gets a sweetheart deal.)

Still, the ABC Coalition report says attendance would be better in Tampa. Which means the team could make more money. Which means the payroll could be higher. Which means winning would be more possible. And so on.

So what happens from here? Does Foster point his attorneys toward Sternberg's? Is Sternberg photographed at Busch Gardens? Or do the two agree on a period of time — a year, let's say — so Sternberg can look around?

Here's a question: How would the St. Petersburg politicians react to the Rays if the team was located somewhere else?

"If we weren't here, how would people treat us?'' Sternberg said wistfully. "I think that's how I'd like to see this community react. If we weren't here, I think it would take a regional effort to get us here.''

It can be a grim thing, looking into the future. It can be unsettling, worrying about a team that has become embraceable.

And so you ask Sternberg. Deep down, what does he believe is going to happen?

Sternberg sighs. He squints.

"I believe there will be the spirit of cooperation that will let us look around,'' he finally says, "and the value of keeping us here will prevail.''

So you think the Rays will be here for the long haul?

Sternberg takes a moment before answering.

"Yes,'' he said. "I do.''

Take part in our poll

If a new Rays stadium were built in Hillsborough, how many games would you attend? Vote at tampabay.com/blogs/rays

It's better to hear Stuart Sternberg name Tampa as a new Tampa Bay Rays home than Charlotte or Vegas 06/21/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 22, 2010 10:20am]

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