ST. PETERSBURG — Baseball's future in the region took a contentious turn Thursday when the city of St. Petersburg threatened to sue any Hillsborough County officials who even discuss possible new stadium locations with the Tampa Bay Rays.
The threat came in a letter from St. Petersburg City Attorney John Wolfe to Hillsborough County attorneys. It marks an escalation of tension between the city and Hillsborough commissioners, who in August invited the Rays to appear before them to talk about baseball.
The Rays accepted the invitation, but a meeting date has not yet been set.
Hillsborough Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, who once offered to "be the boyfriend that causes the divorce" between St. Petersburg and the Rays, consulted his attorneys before inviting the Rays to meet. His attorneys concluded that any legal threat from St. Petersburg was minimal.
On Thursday, Hagan shrugged off St. Petersburg's letter and said he was still excited about having the Rays speak.
"I am confident in the legal opinion of the county attorney's office," Hagan told the Tampa Bay Times. "I am saddened by Mr. Wolfe's attempt to prevent the Rays from remaining in the Tampa Bay region."
Hagan has contended that Hillsborough needs to be ready if St. Petersburg and the Rays cannot forge a new stadium agreement. Otherwise, he said, the Rays might leave the region altogether.
The Rays contend they need a new stadium because Tropicana Field cannot support major-league baseball. A Rays executive declined to comment on Wolfe's letter.
At issue is a provision in the Rays' contract that requires the team to play at Tropicana Field through 2027. The contract explicitly forbids the team from conducting "any agreement or negotiations (directly or indirectly)" with any entity to play anywhere but the Trop.
In Wolfe's letter Thursday, however, he seemed to suggest that the prohibition against "negotiations" also extends to "discussions" and that the city might sue individual commissioners and officials if they misstep during discussions with the Rays.
St. Petersburg will regard "any discussions with the Rays about stadium locations, regardless of how couched, as tortious interference" with the contract, Wolfe wrote.
Wolfe could not be reached Thursday for comment on why the letter equates "discussions" with "negotiations."
But Mayor Bill Foster had this to say:
Hillsborough County can talk to the Rays about how to draw more fans from across the bay or marketing programs to increase attendance at Tropicana Field. But, he said, "it would be improper for them to have any discussions regarding the Rays playing anywhere outside Tropicana Field.
"We're still looking for a St. Petersburg solution," Foster said.
Hagan extended the invitation to the Rays after county attorneys said commissioners, as third parties, were not bound by the Trop contract.
In a written analysis, Robert Brazel, a managing attorney in the county's litigation division, wrote that the county would open itself to lawsuit only if it damaged St. Petersburg, and that such damages would be difficult to prove "unless a new stadium is ultimately constructed in Hillsborough County" and St. Petersburg is not compensated for the team's loss.
But his memo also was cautionary. It suggested that the commission not delve into any discussion of stadium location and simply allow the Rays to talk about their intentions, long-term plans and goals.
Wolfe countered Thursday that St. Petersburg would sue long before any new stadium was built in Hillsborough. All it would take would be a discussion about possible stadium locations east of the bay.
"Any further attempt to induce or create the likelihood of an anticipatory breach is actionable, despite the opinion of the County Attorney's staff," Wolfe wrote. "It is our hope, by this letter, that any litigation against anyone personally or any governmental entity may be avoided."
Wolfe's letter comes amid recent stadium developments that have jostled a years-long standoff between the city and team over a new stadium.
CityScape, a Pinellas development group, recently pitched a new stadium at Carillon Business Park, 10 minutes closer to Tampa than the Trop site.
Foster asked the Rays to meet with CityScape officials to see if the Carillon proposal could meet the team's needs. Rays owner Stuart Sternberg replied that the team would do that, as long as the city allows the Rays to explore Hillsborough sites as well. The Rays asked the city to amend the Trop contract to allow such cross-bay discussions and negotiations.
Foster has been meeting with council members to discuss how the city should respond to the Rays' request.
On Thursday, he downplayed any notion that Wolfe's letter was a back-handed message that the city plans to reject the Rays' request to explore in Hillsborough.
"I'm not telling the Rays anything," Foster said.