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Tampa Bay Rays' success, and maybe the franchise, won't last with status quo

Rays owner Stuart Sternberg may be the market’s only chance to keep the team.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Rays owner Stuart Sternberg may be the market’s only chance to keep the team.

ST. PETERSBURG — Once again, a team owner has spoken out.

And once again, a community of fans has shouted in return.

It is getting to be a tired argument in Tampa Bay, and an unproductive one, too.

On the day his team fell in the playoffs, Rays owner Stuart Sternberg talked of his frustration that a remarkable season may have ended unnecessarily because a lack of revenues had gotten in the way.

Some have said Sternberg's timing was ill-advised. You could make that case, although I would argue it was not a premeditated event. He was in the clubhouse to share a final toast with the 2011 Rays and was questioned by reporters minutes later.

Even so, the timing is simply a detail. Even the exact words he chose are unimportant. It is the message that is key, and that message continues to be lost in a cacophony of insults, accusations, mischaracterizations and frustration.

For the record, I agree Sternberg has a right to be unhappy with Tampa Bay's support of a highly successful baseball team. And, for the record, I concede fans have a right to be annoyed with very rich people complaining about a community's spending habits.

Those two positions are not incompatible, and I think that's part of the problem. No one seems willing to acknowledge the other side might have a valid point.

Fans have to stop behaving as if Sternberg is standing in their driveway calling them deadbeats. He is not blaming teachers or truck drivers or retirees. He is saying his team does not generate enough revenue to keep up with 90 percent of the other major-league teams. And that's a legitimate complaint.

On the other hand, Sternberg needs to be clearer when framing his argument. He needs to spend more time in the community, and he needs to talk more openly so fans understand exactly what it is he is trying to get them to see.

Because this back-and-forth is getting us nowhere today, and somewhere down the road it could cost us dearly. That's what's being ignored in this silly game of finger pointing.

The issue is not whether the Rays were profitable with a $41 million payroll in 2011. (They may have been, although I'd wager it wasn't by much.) Sternberg isn't complaining about a few million dollars earned or lost this year.

His worries are larger, and they are long term. He is concerned about a team that won an AL East title and saw its attendance drop by 17 percent while winning 91 games the next season. He is perplexed that a team could reach the postseason for the third time in four years and see its TV ratings dip by an astounding 37.5 percent.

He is troubled by the thought that other owners will grow tired of seeing a portion of their profits funneled to the team with habitual attendance problems.

Mostly, he is fearful of what will happen when the onfield magic runs out and this team goes from 90-something wins to 70-something. And, believe me, that day is inevitable.

No matter how smart, opportunistic or lucky the Rays are, no one in baseball can field a winner year after year with payrolls vacillating between $40 million and $60 million.

That's what Sternberg is trying to say.

It's not really a complaint. It's not an insult.

It is, essentially, fair warning.

"We're getting to the point where we don't control our own destiny. This is untenable as a model going forward," Sternberg said. "You can look at us and Oakland as the only teams in that respect and I think at least Oakland, by hook or by crook, will have the situation clearer, I would imagine, well before we will. And we'll be last man standing. Or, in this case, lying down, I guess.

"I've done, and did, what I could here, and it's a bigger issue at this point. Clearly."

My guess is Sternberg feels he is in a bind. He once said he would never demand a new stadium, so he is careful not to sound as if he is giving ultimatums.

The problem is he thought Tropicana Field would work as a stadium as long as he turned the Rays into winners. He has done that, and the Rays still lag far behind in attendance.

Ironically, Sternberg is probably a Tampa Bay baseball fan's best friend this morning.

Other owners have no love for the bay area because we are baseball's welfare child. Commissioner Bud Selig has shown no inclination to fight for Tampa Bay, even if this market once helped get stadiums built in Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco.

Right now, Sternberg may be the only person in baseball who still has hope for this market. But his patience is growing thin, and he has no desire to fight.

If solutions are not found quickly, he will move on. And good luck if you think the next owner will graciously accept a postseason crowd of 28,000.

"I'm at a point in my life where I'm only going to play nice," Sternberg said.

"Or I'm not going to play at all."

Tampa Bay Rays' success, and maybe the franchise, won't last with status quo 10/05/11 [Last modified: Thursday, October 6, 2011 12:23am]

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