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Playing hardball will only hasten Tampa Bay Rays' departure from St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — For a moment, forget the politics. Forget the legal issues, the tax ramifications and the conspirators across the bay.

Forget about all the emotional land mines that surround the issue of a baseball stadium in Tampa Bay, and ask yourself a simple question:

How will this end?

Because everything else is just wind and whistles. It is the bottom line that matters, and it is the only thing we should be focusing on this morning.

My crystal ball is not always perfect, but I do know this:

It will not end well for St. Petersburg.

Not the way things are currently going.

Circumstances around Tropicana Field are growing more gloomy with every turn of the calendar, and St. Petersburg leaders think rose-colored glasses are the solution.

I'm sorry, but I just don't buy it.

This story will not have a happy ending if the final chapter involves Mayor Bill Foster blocking the front door with a lease in one hand and a campaign button in the other.

For what relationship ever works when one person refuses to let the other leave?

I'm not suggesting St. Petersburg shouldn't fight for the Rays. And I'm certainly not saying the city shouldn't make the most of its lease at Tropicana Field.

But taking an intractable — and, yes, adversarial — approach to the question of where the Rays end up playing is not going to solve this problem.

All it will do is make ownership less committed to Tampa Bay and to the future of the team. The Rays will suffer. The fans will suffer. Ultimately, St. Petersburg will suffer.

I mean, do you seriously believe the city can hang a few new curtains at Tropicana Field, and Rays owner Stu Sternberg will suddenly decide the place looks charming?

In the history of professional sports, what owner has ever happily accepted defeat on a stadium issue? In the past, they simply moved away. And if they can't move, they sell. And then the process starts all over again with the next guy.

So let's return to the issue of the bottom line.

What is the best St. Petersburg can hope for? That the Rays stay put in a stadium Sternberg detests and attendance miraculously goes through the dome? If you believe that, I've got a .159-hitting catcher I'd like to trade you.

The reality is over the past decade Tampa Bay is 29th out of 30 teams in attendance. And the only team worse — the Marlins — is building a new stadium.

You can argue Tampa Bay attendance was on an upswing from 2008-10, but this season it has dipped to 2007 levels. And, trust me, it will get worse.

Whether you believe him or not, Sternberg says the team was losing money when he increased the payroll in 2009-10. So the payroll was cut substantially this season, and the only thing keeping the Rays out of last place is the prowess of GM Andrew Friedman.

So if Sternberg continues to keep the payroll low — and why wouldn't he if he's unhappy with the city — attendance will continue to drop and his reasons to leave will grow.

This is the point the mayor and other leaders fail to acknowledge. The city doesn't benefit if the stadium is empty, and it just makes the rest of the world think we're goobers.

And the longer it continues, the easier it will be for Sternberg or some other owner to break the lease. The debt service will be paid off, and a judge will be hard-pressed to find many economic or cultural damages for a city that doesn't seem to care about its team.

So why not get ahead of this thing now?

Why not control the team's search for a new stadium? Let Hillsborough County present its best offer, but make it clear that nothing happens without St. Petersburg's approval.

If Pinellas County has a solution in the Gateway or Carillon or Derby Lane areas, then the Rays will be able to compare the deals side by side.

And if the team decides its best chance for survival is in downtown Tampa, then St. Petersburg will have to be handsomely compensated in exchange for releasing the team from the lease.

In the end, it may be the best thing for everyone.

The Rays will be nearer the community's corporate center, St. Petersburg will have money for redevelopment in the midtown area, and the market won't look so depressed and downtrodden in the nation's eyes.

Is all of that possible? I honestly don't know.

An awful lot would have to go right. Someone would have to come up with a lot of money for a stadium, and to pay off St. Petersburg as well. Perhaps that would make Gateway the more attractive solution in the long run. Or maybe we'll discover the stadium is not worth the expense.

The point is someone needs to be discussing it.

Because talking tough is not necessarily a leader's greatest quality. Listening can be, too.

Playing hardball will only hasten Tampa Bay Rays' departure from St. Petersburg 06/09/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 10, 2011 12:43am]
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