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Rays will get their new stadium — somewhere

ST. PETERSBURG — Technically, today's debate concerns the location of a new ballpark in the city. Realistically, it is a referendum on the future of major-league baseball in St. Petersburg.

Oh, the Rays are smart enough not to frame it in such stark terms. They know better than to open a conversation about a new stadium with threats or ultimatums.

But connecting the dots is not all that difficult. This ownership group is not staying at Tropicana Field for the long term. That could mean either selling the team or breaking the lease, but one or the other seems inevitable if a new stadium in St. Petersburg is not in the Rays' future.

So, yes, it is important to know about every detail and dollar regarding the financing of a proposed waterfront ballpark. It is important to understand the potential liabilities and possible drawbacks from this ambitious plan. It is important for the city to negotiate with a ruthless vision.

But it is important, also, to understand the potential cost of saying no.

Owner Stuart Sternberg is not going to remain at Tropicana Field through 2027, the final year of the Rays' lease. He made that clear just about a year ago this week when he said the stadium was nearly obsolete.

So figure out for yourself where this story goes if the waterfront proposal doesn't reach referendum, or isn't approved by city voters.

Sternberg will take it as an indication the city isn't committed to the Rays. Whether that is fair is not really the point. The reality is he will have 10 years of poor attendance, a mediocre building and a rejection by the community, and that will be more than enough for Major League Baseball to consider this a failing location.

Does that mean Sternberg would have an army of lawyers seeking ways to break the lease for a possible move to Charlotte or Portland? The closer we get to the stadium's debt service being paid off in 2017, the more plausible that prospect will seem. Does it mean Sternberg will talk to investment bankers about selling the team? That's harder to imagine but, like Lightning owner Bill Davidson, he is an out-of-town businessman with no loyalties here.

My guess is it will go one of two ways. Either someone in the city will suggest the Gateway area in northeast St. Petersburg as an alternative location, or the Rays will start leering suggestively at Hillsborough County.

The mere mention of Tampa should reinvigorate decades-old insecurities about St. Petersburg being the bay area's weaker sibling, but it is a question worth posing.

Frankly, this city has been a huge disappointment in terms of fan support. You can blame missteps by the previous ownership group and you can blame a decade of excruciating losing. You can blame the location of the stadium and you can blame the location of Venus or Mars.

But I keep coming back to this unsettling fact:

The Rays sold out the first game in franchise history on March 31, 1998. And they did not sell out another game for more than six years. That says far more about the market than the team's promotions or performances.

Maybe the simple truth is that, because of demographics and history, St. Petersburg has neither the wealth nor the civic roots to support major-league baseball.

If you believe that to be true, you shouldn't support a new waterfront ballpark. For all that will do is take the same inherent problems that doomed Tropicana Field, and move them a few blocks away with a much higher price tag.

If you believe St. Petersburg still has potential as a metropolitan city, then the redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site and the construction of a waterfront ballpark seems to be an idea worth exploring.

Just don't point at Tropicana Field as the answer to this issue. It no longer matters whether you love the place or not. The ownership group has decided Tropicana Field is not a sufficient facility to support a quality baseball team and payroll, and so every future conversation must begin with that in mind.

Again, it doesn't matter whether that is an appealing assessment.

The reality is that it is ownership's stance, and nothing is going to change that.

So if St. Petersburg residents decide they do not want a new waterfront stadium, it is certainly a defensible position and clearly within their rights.

Just understand that, ultimately, the decision may also mean St. Petersburg will not be in the business of major-league baseball 10 years from now.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Rays will get their new stadium — somewhere 05/15/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 20, 2008 4:26pm]
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