The sellout crowd at the Tampa Bay Rays' 14th season opener tonight at Tropicana Field will find new food choices, a new playing surface and plenty of new players. What the franchise needs to ensure its long-term future in the region is a serious conversation about a new stadium.
Back when Carl Crawford was in left field and Carlos Peña was at first base — last year — the Rays reasonably asked St. Petersburg for permission to look at potential stadium sites in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. Mayor Bill Foster's pinched response was to allow a look at sites just outside the city in mid Pinellas, but Tampa was treated with the same stiff-arm as if it were Charlotte. Since then there have been no serious talks between the team and the city, but another year of Tropicana Field debt has been paid and another year has clicked off the team's long-term lease. The more time passes, the less leverage the region has, the more discouraged the Rays get and the more likely Tampa Bay fans could wake up one day without progressive team ownership or even a baseball team to cheer for on opening day.
"It seems clearer to me by the day that we're going to be the last man standing," Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said last week. "And everything I know, and talking to these guys, baseball is just not going to stand for it anymore. And they'll find a place for me. They won't find a place here, though. So it's up to us, to everybody, to figure out how to get it right."
The governor, the mayor and the principal team owner will be under the Trop's roof tonight. They should agree to meet again soon for a longer conversation about building a new stadium that would guarantee there are season openers in Tampa Bay for decades to come.