Thursday's ice-breaking session with the Hillsborough County commissioners and Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg marked a welcome step toward building the regional support necessary to keep Major League Baseball. It set the appropriate tone, with the commissioners pledging to work as partners to preserve a regional asset. Most importantly, the discussion underscored the urgency of the stadium situation and why St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster's petty parochialism and stalling are not a viable long-term strategy to keep baseball or protect the city's interests.
Sternberg explained why the design and location of Tropicana Field in downtown St. Petersburg makes it difficult to build the team's fan base. The Rays have fielded a competitive team, improved the fan experience and invested in the dome — yet attendance ranks at the bottom in the league. The result, Sternberg said, is Major League Baseball "doesn't believe in the Tampa Bay area." And with the league's revenue-sharing, underperformers such as the Rays are seen as a "welfare state" by other owners. As time goes on, he said, the decision whether the franchise remains in Tampa Bay "gets slowly taken out of my hands."
That is a sobering assessment of the situation that ought to raise concerns throughout the region. Yet it did not amount to a threat. Sternberg did not ask Hillsborough to build a stadium, seek specific financial assistance or set any deadlines. He underscored his commitment to the team and the bay area for the long term. The main message was that the Rays are a regional asset and keeping them requires regional effort. In substance and tone, the presentation amplified everything that is wrong with Foster's approach in threatening lawsuits and refusing to allow the Rays to examine potential stadium sites in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
Foster might want to get a copy of the meeting transcript. Sternberg made a point of noting how "very frustrating" it is dealing with Foster's administration, and he pleaded for "calmer heads to get together" and for "a break in the logjam." It was a message that should resonate in Pinellas as much as in Hillsborough. And it makes a good discussion point for when the Rays make a similar appearance before the Pinellas County Commission on Tuesday.
Hillsborough commissioners were noncommittal, aware of the litigious cloud Foster needlessly threw over the discussion. But they also were somewhat in the dark over broader issues such as the Rays' impact on the region, the value of professional sports and the lead time involved in stadium projects. Continuing discussions with the Rays requires these commissioners to get up to speed on a host of economic and intercounty development issues. Elected officials in both counties need to embrace the same sense of regionalism that Sternberg sees as essential to the franchise's success. That is the best starting point for a conversation that can no longer wait. Tampa Bay is a major-league market, and now it has to convince baseball of that all over again.