Thursday, April 19, 2018
Opinion

Rays entertain Hillsborough suitors

First dates can be so awkward.

The Tampa Bay Rays used to have a nice boyfriend. Rick Baker, whatta guy. He was sensitive to their needs, wanted better things for the team. But then he left his job as St. Petersburg mayor and for the past three years the Rays have been stuck with Bill Foster. He never calls. He's moody, always wanting things to go just his way. And while vague, opaque, secret promises are made that he'll give them a new diamond, the poor Rays are stuck living in a gussied-up and largely empty dump.

So can you blame the Rays for casting a roving eye toward someone who will appreciate them more? That certainly explains the footsie-wootsie that took place Thursday, when the team's big shots went to Tampa for an exploratory cup of coffee with a potentially new paramour.

What might we call this romance? The Bridges of Hillsborough County?

This was sort of a pre-affair affair. A chance for the Rays to flirt with their new potential suitors on the Hillsborough County Commission. Alas, there was a problem. The team has a prenup binding them to St. Petersburg and a particular Quonset hut until at least 2027, even though, as team owner Stuart Sternberg observed, Major League Baseball has come to regard the Tampa Bay market as less viable than an ice bag franchise in the Arctic Circle.

Talk about bondage!

As a result, the commissioners had been counseled by their lawyers that they couldn't discuss specifics about a new stadium site or how a ballpark in Hillsborough might be financed, which is all anyone really wanted to talk about anyway.

That pretty much left the commissioners constrained to making come hither goo-goo eyes at Sternberg and his brain trust for a better part of the morning. Groucho Marx didn't leer this much toward Margaret Dumont.

As so often happens on first dates, over the violins and the wine, Sternberg and his associates used their time leaning across the table complaining about what a lousy life they've had putting up with a sports spouse who doesn't bring them flowers anymore.

After swooning over what a wonderful companion Rick Baker had been, Sternberg mentioned the current stiff he's stuck with once and that was only to say: "Right now, Mayor Foster is there." This probably doesn't qualify as renewing one's vows.

The tale of woe only grew more heartbreaking. Even though the Rays on the field have become one of the sport's most consistently successful franchises, those winning seasons still have not attracted more fans to baseball's own Bates Motel.

Inhibited by their lawyers, the commissioners resisted the temptation to cradle Sternberg in their arms. Though it seemed, for a moment, as if commission chairman Ken Hagan was trying to blow Sternberg an air kiss.

Sternberg repeatedly made it clear that unless someone (cough, Hillsborough, cough County, cough Tampa) comes up with a viable option to help the team move into more profitable digs, it is only a matter of time before Major League Baseball steps into the picture to remove the Burkina Faso of sports franchises from the area.

By this point, the commissioners were practically sobbing, frustrated that they were legally prevented by their barristers from handing over the entire Channelside District to Sternberg to save him once and for all.

The Rays speed dating tour continues next week when the Sternberg harem travels to the Pinellas County Commission. Cue: Johnny Mathis crooning Chances Are.

And just where is the man of the house? Foster still thinks if he stays curled up and pouting everything will be swell.

Perhaps he's been watching too many episodes of the old Honeymooners, where the bumptious Ralph Kranden bellows to the much put-upon Alice, "You are nothing. I am the king and my word is law," only to discover he was acting like a complete simpleton.

What Foster still doesn't seem to grasp is that the Rays are jilting him.

Isn't the other party always the last to know?

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