ST. PETERSBURG — As his last days in office tick away, Mayor Bill Foster on Thursday issued his most pessimistic declaration yet on the future of the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg and the Pinellas peninsula.
"I don't think there's anything in the equation that causes Major League Baseball to want to stay in Pinellas County," Foster said.
The outgoing mayor also was negative about the future of Major League Baseball in the Tampa Bay region — especially Tampa, where Mayor Bob Buckhorn has made it no secret that he covets the team if the Rays somehow negotiate an exit from the contract binding them to Tropicana Field.
"I'm not convinced that Major League Baseball sees the Tampa Bay market as one that is sustainable for Major League Baseball," Foster said.
The Rays' conundrum will soon be out of Foster's hands anyway. This month, voters elected a new mayor, Rick Kriseman, who will take office Jan. 2.
For years, the Rays have believed that the Trop is poorly located and cannot support a long-term winning franchise. The team's attendance has been so low that other teams subsidize Tampa Bay through revenue sharing.
The new mayor must figure out how to protect St. Petersburg's financial interests in a baseball stadium it is still paying off, negotiate with a team that wants to explore options beyond Pinellas and also prevent the team from leaving the region altogether.
Last week, Kriseman received a private briefing on the Rays' situation from the incumbent mayor and spent an hour chatting with Tampa Bay's principal owner, Stuart Sternberg.
St. Petersburg has talked to the Rays about allowing the team to look in Hillsborough County without sacrificing the city's interests. But in September, Foster declared those talks a failure.
Last week, baseball commissioner Bud Selig said he has no plans to intervene in the discussion. The Rays did not return a request for comment Thursday.
"I've said this publicly: Mr. Sternberg is up against 29 owners of Major League Baseball teams and a commissioner who do not believe that Major League Baseball is sustainable in Tampa Bay," Foster said. "That is a fact."
Foster said he doesn't see anything changing Major League Baseball's mind — not even Sternberg. His fellow owners, the mayor said, will not wait years for the Tampa Bay economy to rebound or for a new light-rail system that could boost attendance.
"They're not going to wait," Foster said. "Major League Baseball does not believe in Tampa Bay as a baseball region, I am convinced of that.
"I believe that Mr. Sternberg believes it could work. I'm not sure he's convinced, but he believes it could work."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at (813) 226-3404, firstname.lastname@example.org or @jthalji on Twitter.