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New stadium talks will wait until after the season ends

ST. PETERSBURG — The Tampa Bay Rays and St. Petersburg officials have scrapped negotiations for a new stadium until after the last pitch of the World Series, sometime in November.

From the way negotiations have unfolded so far, they don't agree on much.

Mayor Bill Foster said Wednesday that his offer last week to permit the Rays to leave Tropicana Field for a stadium anywhere in St. Petersburg and the greater Gateway area "was my best and final."

Yet on Tuesday, Rays president Matt Silverman rejected this offer and said the club needs to consider all sites in the region, including Hillsborough County — which Foster said is off-limits.

"We're really in uncharted territory," said Rick Eckstein, co-author of the 2003 book Public Dollars, Private Stadiums. "If there's going to be a standoff, it would be unprecedented."

When it comes to Major League Baseball, cities cave and let teams out of iron-clad leases all the time, Eckstein said.

"The politicians see teams as huge trophies," said Eckstein, a Villanova University sociology professor. "They don't want to be associated with losing one. So if (St. Petersburg) holds to this, it would be revolutionary."

Foster and City Attorney John Wolfe are relying on the city's contract with the Rays, signed in 1995, to settle the conflict. The contract keeps the Rays at Tropicana Field through the 2027 season. If the Rays leave early, the contract says the city would be compensated for the economic loss.

But if that's what the two sides discuss in November, it's uncertain how they would agree on what the Rays would owe.

"I wouldn't want to put a number on it," Wolfe said.

"If they walk, it's going to cost them," said City Council member Bill Dudley. "I would hope they would have to pay more than they can afford, so they don't do it."

One potential conflict to come in November is the difference between "talk" and "negotiate." Wolfe and Foster interpret the contract as prohibiting the Rays from discussing stadium options with other groups, a type of contract tampering they call tortious interference. They have promised to sue any parties or cities that approach the Rays with proposals to leave the Trop.

But can groups merely "talk" with the Rays about possible deals? The contract says the club can't "enter into, initiate or conduct any agreement or negotiations (directly or indirectly)" to play in a stadium other than Tropicana Field. Does mere "talking" qualify as "negotiations"?

Wolfe said the city feels it's the same thing. The Rays won't comment.

"We could get injunctions against them for talking with other people," Wolfe said. "It would be up for a court to decide."

Wolfe said he is trying to imagine how the Rays will approach the talks in November.

"I'm not looking forward to the fall," he said. "I'm not sure what they're going to do. I don't know what their real plan is."

One wild card is whether Major League Baseball will get involved.

If MLB does get involved, it's not clear what impact it would have. The league has helped with negotiations that led to a new stadium in Miami and is involved in discussions in Oakland as the A's consider a move to San Jose.

Eckstein said the league can't pressure cities to subsidize stadiums, but it can decide where the franchises are. He said American League owners could vote on what other cities are possible for the Rays' new home.

That would be a rare move, and one met with resistance from the city. But Major League Baseball isn't a legal entity that could be sued for interference. If the city does object, it would have to sue the league's individual teams.

"Major League Baseball is not in a position to solve this," said Dave St. Peter, president of the Minnesota Twins. "But it wants to be constructive and shape the debate. At the end of the day, fans want a team that can compete on the field and financially."

Unfortunately, right now, the Rays don't compete in attendance, Eckstein said.

"A team that good, that is drawing crowds of 19,000 and 20,000, will never draw in a market like Tampa Bay," he said. "That's the way it is."

But Foster said he believes the Rays can compete in St. Petersburg.

He recalled the promises Sternberg made when he bought the team.

On Wednesday, he read from a 2005 St. Petersburg Times story that quoted Rays owner Stu Sternberg as saying: "You will never — and I will say it now and hopefully I can say it and you'll follow up — you will not hear the words, "We need to have a new stadium.' "

"I believed every word he said," Foster said. "I still believe it."

Times staff writer Stephen Nohlgren contributed to this story. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

New stadium talks will wait until after the season ends 07/28/10 [Last modified: Thursday, July 29, 2010 7:34am]
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