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Rays don't swing at Foster's offer to keep club in Pinellas

ST. PETERSBURG — Just hours after the Tampa Bay Rays celebrated the biggest highlight so far this season with Matt Garza's no-hitter, team officials on Tuesday shut down another opponent — their landlord.

The Rays rejected St. Petersburg's offer to let the team out of its contract to play at Tropicana Field if it confined its search for a new stadium to Pinellas County. After an hour-long meeting with St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, team President Matt Silverman repeated the message delivered last month by Rays owner Stu Sternberg: The club will stay in Tampa Bay only if it can consider all locations, including those in Tampa and Hillsborough County.

"Any search for a new ballpark site needs to explore all of the Tampa Bay region," Silverman said in a statement issued after Tuesday afternoon's meeting at the Trop. "This is what we repeated to Mayor Foster today. We thanked him for his gesture, and we conveyed to him again that we will consider sites in St. Petersburg and Gateway when we are considering all potential sites in Tampa Bay."

Silverman said further discussion of the issue will wait until after the season.

"Our organization is singularly focused on the pennant race at hand," Silverman said. "Come November, we will work to formulate a process for a ballpark site search with the city of St. Petersburg and Pinellas County."

What that process might entail — be it talks of a buyout that could deliver millions to St. Petersburg or some other compromise that would allow the Rays to search for a new home outside of Pinellas — is unclear. Rays officials wouldn't comment beyond the one-page statement. The city officials who attended the meeting, Foster and City Development Senior Administrator Rick Mussett, didn't return repeated phone calls.

"I'm extremely disappointed by the response," said City Council Chairwoman Leslie Curran. "The Rays need to focus on St. Petersburg and exhaust all those opportunities."

Council members would have to agree to any changes to the city's contract with the Rays and have mostly supported Foster's hard-line approach to the agreement. Signed in 1995, the contract binds the Rays to the Trop through the 2027 season.

Sternberg says the Rays are losing money at the Trop and a stadium closer to Tampa might better financially support the team.

Foster and council members disagree. Just last year, they point out, the Rays were proposing a waterfront stadium in downtown St. Petersburg.

"If downtown was so fabulous 18 months ago, why doesn't it work now?" Curran said. "The Rays need to tell me what has changed."

After the waterfront stadium proposal died for lack of political support, the ABC Coalition, a group of community leaders who studied stadium possibilities, recommended downtown Tampa, the Gateway area and West Tampa as the areas closest to where people live and work. It concluded that downtown St. Petersburg was too far away from a strong population base and couldn't support Major League Baseball.

Foster and the council refused to hear the ABC Coalition's report and have said that any developer group or city that tries to lure the Rays from the Trop would be guilty of interfering in a legal contract and would be sued.

Last week, Foster softened this stance and said he would be willing to let the Rays explore leaving the Trop early if club officials agreed to keep the team in St. Petersburg or the Greater Gateway area, which includes at least two viable locations outside of city limits.

Council member Jeff Danner said Tuesday's response didn't advance the stadium issue.

"Sounds like the same thing they've been saying," Danner said. "But if they want to break the lease, they need to sit down with us. We'll decide what happens. The mayor gave as much as he could. It's too bad the Rays are taking this approach."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com

Rays don't swing at Foster's offer to keep club in Pinellas 07/27/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 28, 2010 8:04am]
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