The city of St. Petersburg sent a strong letter the other day to the private group that's studying a new baseball stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays.
Here's a translation:
"Hey! We hear that you guys are asking what it will take to break the Rays' existing deal, which says they have to play baseball here until 2027.
"The answer is, nothing can break it. Zip. So don't even think about a new stadium that isn't in St. Petersburg."
The letter, written by City Attorney John Wolfe, even contained a hint of a warning that nobody should try to mess with the existing deal.
"Neither the city nor the Rays," Wolfe wrote, "gave any person or party a waiver … to interfere with or cause a violation of the provisions of the agreement."
Wolfe stressed that this is not a mere "lease" between the Rays and St. Petersburg, but a contract to play baseball games. The distinction is important. St. Petersburg believes it stands to lose much more than just some rent.
In fact, Wolfe pointed out, the contract states that any violation will cause "irreparable harm and damages that are not readily calculable." It explicitly gives both sides the right to go to court to block the other from backing out.
Finally, Wolfe wrote, just in case anybody was wondering, it was perfectly okay for the city to talk to the Rays about a new stadium back in 2007-08, because those talks didn't involve any "third party" trying to interfere.
Despite all this, the baseball task force ought to ignore the city's letter completely. Politely, but completely.
The task force, A Baseball Community Inc., or ABC, is a private group that has only one job, namely, to recommend the best stadium option.
True, ABC came into existence in the first place because St. Petersburg's mayor, Rick Baker, asked the boss of Progress Energy Florida, Jeff Lyash, to put it together.
But the group was not assigned to come up with the best stadium idea in St. Petersburg. It has been considering everything.
So the options should continue to include Tampa and central Pinellas County. They should include any that make sense. (I suppose that could include, "Don't build a stadium at all and let the team leave," although it seems unlikely.)
Hey, I'm a taxpayer in St. Petersburg. I'm not interested in being stuck with a prematurely empty Tropicana Field and a tab. Obviously, any deal that involves leaving the city has to cover the city's costs.
But beyond that …
Beyond that, the question could arise. What if the best option is outside the St. Petersburg city limits? What if the money lines up, the site is better, the projected attendance is far greater?
On that day, will St. Petersburg still wave its agreement with the Rays in the air and say, "Over my dead body?"
If we're lucky, the question will turn out to be moot. Several sites the ABC is likely to consider are inside the city anyway, including Tropicana Field and the Carillon and Toytown areas. (Two that aren't: Derby Lane and the Airco Golf Course.)
But if by some chance ABC ends up with a superior site that happens to be outside of St. Petersburg, the city's leadership will have to make a choice between parochial self-interest and the greater good of the Tampa Bay area.
I'm betting on "parochial self-interest," but you never know.