St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster wants to blame baseball commissioner Bud Selig for his own failures. Selig is hardly a sympathetic character, but he's not the reason stadium negotiations between the city and the Tampa Bay Rays are stalled. The reason is Foster's lack of leadership and poor negotiating skills, and the stalemate is more evidence that St. Petersburg needs a new mayor.
For three years, Foster refused to acknowledge the obvious. The Rays' attendance ranks near the bottom of Major League Baseball despite fielding competitive teams, and Tropicana Field ranks among the worst stadiums. Yet Foster refused to consider letting the Rays look at potential stadium sites in Tampa and pretended the team will keep playing at the Trop until its lease expires in 2027. Never mind that every year that ticks off the lease means less negotiating leverage for St. Petersburg. Never mind that St. Petersburg City Council members, Hillsborough and Pinellas county commissioners and area business leaders all recognized the smarter approach is to negotiate with the Rays and ensure that Major League Baseball remains in Tampa Bay for the long term.
Then Foster just happened to have an epiphany in an election year. He began privately negotiating with the Rays on a deal that would let the team look at stadium sites in Tampa and protect St. Petersburg's financial interests. He told the Times editorial board just last month that the Rays have to be allowed to look in Tampa if they are going to stay in the area, and he even wondered whether Tampa Bay is a major league market. Both Foster and Rays owner Stuart Sternberg sounded optimistic they could reach an agreement.
What prompted Foster's abrupt outburst last week that indicated talks have broken down? It should not have been Selig's recent complaints about the pace of the negotiations. The baseball commissioner naturally is interested in the economics of baseball revenue sharing and doesn't want the less profitable franchises to keep being propped up by the others. But it is no coincidence that Foster portrayed himself as standing up for city taxpayers against rich team owners a week after he barely finished first in the mayoral primary and finds himself in a tight race with former City Council member and state legislator Rick Kriseman.
It also would be no surprise if the private talks broke down because Foster overplayed his hand. This mayor does not have a good reputation for negotiating in good faith and finding reasonable middle ground, whether it's with the Rays over the stadium, or Pinellas County over the EMS system, or the city of Tampa over bills for the Republican National Convention.
Kriseman pledges to negotiate with the Rays on allowing the team to look at stadium sites in Tampa. His suggestion that the Rays lower ticket prices in return is intriguing. But there are bigger issues to consider: How much would the Rays pay toward demolishing Tropicana Field? How would they help the city prepare the site for redevelopment? How much would they pay the city to leave for a new stadium in Tampa before the Trop lease expired?
If Foster really wants to change the political dynamics before the November election, he should negotiate a fair deal with the Rays and ask the City Council to approve it. If the Rays believe they have a fair offer and Foster is blocking it for political reasons, they should bypass the mayor and take it directly to the City Council.
Otherwise, the best hope for keeping Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay and protecting St. Petersburg taxpayers is a new mayor.