ST. PETERSBURG — A lawsuit helped St. Petersburg land the Tampa Bay Rays.
Now, nearly two decades later, city officials must decide whether litigation can help St. Petersburg keep the team in town.
Council members will meet Thursday to discuss their legal options after the Tampa Bay Rays announced Monday that they want to pursue stadium sites in Hillsborough County.
"We want to assess and see where we go from here," Council Chair Leslie Curran said. "We need to hear from our legal staff about what to do next."
City Attorney John Wolfe, who said Monday that he might meet with Rays lawyers to explore options to amend the city's contract with the team, canceled those plans to concentrate on briefing the council.
"Judging by what the council and mayor are saying,'' Wolfe said, "we cannot even open negotiations (with the Rays) at this point.''
Though Rays owner Stuart Sternberg says the team won't stay at Tropicana Field through 2027, he has not explicitly threatened to break the club's contract with the city.
He just wants the city to let him pursue stadium options on both sides of the bay.
"In a perfect world, that's what would happen,'' Sternberg said Monday.
So far, city officials aren't buying it. They still want baseball in downtown St. Petersburg, or at least within city limits in the mid Pinellas Gateway area. And they want to know how strong the contract is and where their leverage lies.
For starters, the Rays do not have a traditional lease on the Trop. Sternberg can't just pay the rent in full and leave, because the Trop has no rent to speak of.
Instead, the Rays have a contract to provide "unique and diverse'' benefits to the community by playing baseball at the Trop through 2027.
The city can seek an injunction, forbidding the team to leave before that, but a judge is more likely to order monetary damages than order a business to stay in town for years, said Stetson University law professor Peter Lake, who specializes in contracts.
Monetary damages would be determined by calculating how much those "unique and diverse" benefits are worth.
That language stemmed from the 1990s, when original Rays owner Vincent Naimoli cut a deal to move the San Francisco Giants to St. Petersburg.
Major League Baseball squelched the sale and St. Petersburg filed an antitrust lawsuit that cost at least $100,000, Wolfe said Tuesday. After the Florida Supreme Court ruled in St. Petersburg's favor, the city dropped the suit and baseball awarded Naimoli an expansion team.
The contract language, drawn up to bind the Rays to the Trop, lists the team's benefits to the city: job opportunities, tax revenues, promotional opportunities, image improvement and local pride.
Putting a value on the benefits would be difficult, Wolfe said.
However, one indicator could be a 2009 study commissioned by the Rays that estimated that the team generates $136.5 million to $212.5 million a year in tourist spending.
Sternberg acknowledged Monday that the Rays could be held responsible for remaining Trop bonds if they left early. But he suggested that, economically, the city could do better without the team.
Tropicana Field's 85 acres hold development value, he said. "If someone comes in and says they will pay $100 million for the Trop and put it back on tax rolls, the question should be how much should I be asking for to get out?''
Lake, the Stetson professor, said Sternberg would likely face the most damages if he moved quickly to a city outside the region.
"No judge is going to want to be the one to let them leave the area, like the (Baltimore) Colts,'' Lake said.
But St. Petersburg would struggle to prove serious damages if the Rays moved to Tampa, Lake said. St. Petersburg residents could still go to games. Visiting teams could still stay at the Vinoy.
"There might be some damages, but what's the real harm?'' he said
Lake said he admired the strategic value of Sternberg's appeal for regional cooperation.
"They can bargain to move to Tampa, and they can also use that leverage to get a better deal in St. Petersburg if they want to stay,'' he said. "They are playing Mom against Dad.''
Further, he said, every day that passes strengthens the Rays' position and weakens the city's, because the contract holds less value.
It's not implausible that the city would let the Rays explore stadium sites elsewhere, council member Jeff Danner said. But first, club officials would have to exhaust St. Petersburg possibilities.
"Provide us proof that it can't work downtown," Danner said. "If the Rays can't do that, then we'll talk about other sites in St. Petersburg, like what's in Gateway."
Team officials are closely watching the council's reaction.
A day after council member Wengay Newton was quoted in the St. Petersburg Times comparing the Rays' wanderlust to a straying husband, he received a call from Rays vice president Michael Kalt.
"He wasn't too happy," Newton said. "He said all they wanted to do is review their options. I told him I understand that, but the city has a contract."
Mayor Bill Foster and the council have displayed a unified front against the Hillsborough options.
Foster said he was taken off guard by Monday's news conference, where Sternberg suggested he would discuss St. Petersburg stadium sites only if he could also pursue all Tampa Bay locations.
The two men met at City Hall before the Rays' news conference, but disagree about what was said.
Sternberg said Monday he fully briefed Foster. Foster said Tuesday that Sternberg never indicated he was going to pressure the city to let the team look in other locales.
"I said 'Let's show you properties in St. Petersburg and let's limit it to St. Petersburg,' " Foster said. "We sat there and nodded our heads and agreed."
Now Foster said he's preparing an announcement of his own, to clarify the city's position.