ST. PETERSBURG — City officials say they are buying a new insurance policy if the Tampa Bay Rays try to leave Tropicana Field: the paid expertise of an international law firm that would fight to keep the club from moving.
City Attorney John Wolfe is negotiating a contract to pay a $5,000 retainer fee to the New York firm Brown Rudnick, which has more than 200 attorneys and several offices, including Washington, D.C., Boston and London.
Wolfe said the law firm will come in handy to prepare the city for possible scenarios in which the Rays would try to leave the Trop before the club's contract with the city runs out in 2027. He said if the Rays don't try to leave, the city would get the $5,000 back.
The hiring of the firm comes a few weeks after Rays owner Stuart Sternberg made some cryptic comments during spring training about the club's future at the Trop.
"Baseball is just not going to stand for it anymore,'' Sternberg told reporters. "They'll find a place for me. They won't find a place here, though.''
Wolfe and Mayor Bill Foster say Rays officials haven't given them any indication that they won't honor the contract.
Wolfe said Thursday that he learned about the firm at a conference last year. William Baldiga, an attorney at Brown Rudnick, spoke about representing Glendale, Ariz., in a battle to keep its National Hockey League franchise from leaving.
The city leased an arena to the Phoenix Coyotes. In a 2009 bankruptcy filing, the Coyotes told the court the team was losing about $25 million a year and wanted to sell to a Canadian businessman.
Bankruptcy would void the team's arena lease with Glendale, which still had 25 years to run, said city spokeswoman Julie Frisoni. The NHL opposed the sale and bought the Coyotes.
In December, a Chicago options trader who wanted to buy the team secured a new lease. Under that lease, Glendale would float bonds to pay the Coyotes $100 million, in exchange for rights to collect all parking fees. The city would assume the cost of arena operations and management, estimated at $17 million a year.
A potential taxpayer lawsuit has delayed finalizing the deal.
Asked how this case showed him that Brown Rudnick could protect St. Petersburg's interests, Wolfe said he'd have to review it more closely.
The Rays declined to comment Thursday on their finances or the city's hiring of Brown Rudnick. Balance sheets leaked last year by the website Deadspin.com showed the Rays with a 2008 operating profit of $14 million and net income of $4 million after interest and other expenses.
The 2008 operating profit included about $11 million from a World Series run. Player payroll that year was about $43 million, similar to this year's payroll.