ST. PETERSBURG — Crowds won't start filling Tropicana Field for another 78 days, but the two men who most affect baseball's future in the region put it to some use Tuesday afternoon.
St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg held a much-anticipated sit-down for about two hours in Rays offices.
Foster declined to comment, saying he wanted to brief City Council members before making any public statements.
Sternberg characterized the meeting as "nothing dramatic'' but did offer one optimistic note:
He foresees "a nice improvement'' in attendance for 2012.
The Rays typically do not discuss season ticket sales, but "some sportswriters, misguided or not, think we have a great chance to have a very good team this year,'' Sternberg said. "We feel really good about it. We had a great finish last year. Our TV ratings increased dramatically in the last couple of months.''
Any such improvement does not change the team's determination to seek new stadium possibilities in Hillsborough County, Sternberg said. Nor did his meeting with Foster change the city's determination to stick to the Trop contract and forbid such discussions.
The meeting mostly touched on ways to improve marketing and communication, Sternberg said.
"You kind of do a tune-up every six months or so — a what's been bothering you, what's been bothering us?'' he said. "The city wants to know if they can help us promote the team, and we'd like to know what the city can do to help promote the team and work together in that vein.''
Several council members were pleased. Relations have been testy for 19 months, since Sternberg announced that he would not discuss new stadium sites in Pinellas County unless he can research Hillsborough sites as well.
"Just to have had an open door and have them sit down as adults and have a positive conversation on how we move forward is a plus,'' said council Chairwoman Leslie Curran.
Council member Steve Kornell re-emphasized his faith that St. Petersburg can support a successful team, taking a sideways swipe at Tampa Mayor Bill Buckhorn's statements that Tampa is waiting in the wings.
"Businesses all over the region should support the team by buying tickets, no matter what side of the bridge the stadium is located on,'' Kornell said. "It's a double message to say (baseball) is a regional asset only if it moves to our city. I hope the mayor of Tampa jumps onboard and helps us.''
Council member Karl Nurse said the Rays and city officials should concentrate more on getting light rail than on where a new stadium should be built.
"This is like a relationship gone sour,'' Nurse said. "You need something you can work on together.''
Sternberg's outlook for the 2012 season, plus recent business moves by the team, contrast with the run-up to the 2011 season.
Last year, the Rays cut their payroll by 40 percent to $41 million and talked frequently about how the team could not afford popular free agent players like Carl Crawford and Carlos Peña.
This year, they have said the payroll could grow to $60 million, and already have acquired one significant free agent, former Baltimore Oriole Luke Scott.
"I'm an optimistic fella,'' Sternberg said. "I think the expectations coming into last season probably weren't as great as they had been for the previous couple of years.''
As for marketing issues, Sternberg seemed sensitive to a recent report — via Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala — that Foster thought the Rays had purposely sandbagged their marketing efforts to depress attendance.
Foster has vehemently denied that allegation, but Sternberg said he "had to defend'' the Rays' marketing efforts during his meeting with the mayor.
In the next sentence, though, Sternberg struck a different note, saying Foster "thought we were doing a fine job marketing. I don't want to put words in his mouth.''
Times staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report.