PORT CHARLOTTE — Standing in the middle of a baseball field, a man can see the sunshine. Looking into the distance, he can see happy endings.
Even now, even with all of the empty seats, even without enough corporate support, even with fans hissing every time a new stadium is mentioned, even with politicians harrumphing at each other across a bay, Stu Sternberg says he believes.
Yes, he says, he is optimistic things can work out for the Rays and the Bay.
No, he says, he has not been contacted by other areas in search of a team.
No, he says, he has not given up on Tampa Bay.
Sternberg stands on the infield grass, tossing a baseball softly from his left hand to his right. A few feet away, his pitchers gather around the mound and listen to instruction. Here, far away from the contracts and the numbers and the upcoming stadium snits, Sternberg smiles.
Yes, he says, he remains optimistic things can still work out between the Rays and the Bay.
"I'm an optimistic guy," Sternberg said. "I'm very optimistic. When we first came here, it was all about getting fans interested in our team. And I know we've hit that mark. We have an average of 400,000-500,000 people a night following this team 162 games a year. We have a tremendous amount of interest. I would like to believe the potential is still here for it to translate into box office."
Ah, but when? If it did not happen over the past three seasons, when the Rays had the best three seasons in franchise history, how much longer until enough fans show up to quell the concern this team might end up elsewhere?
Sternberg shrugs. He pauses, as if to pick his words carefully.
"I would have expected it to happen already," Sternberg said. "But that doesn't mean it can't happen. The important thing for us is to understand why it isn't happening. And the main issue is clearly the stadium."
No, he says, there is no news. The Rays are no closer to a stadium today than they were the day Sternberg suggested that a new one would be nice to have.
Still, there was no threat to Sternberg's voice, no demands, no grumbles that the franchise has, in his words, lost "a ton of money" in recent years. When he talked about the stripping of the team's roster, an inevitability for a small-market, low-income team, there is no blame laid on the attendance.
"There is nobody to blame," Sternberg said. "This is our situation."
At this point, a lot of people would ask "for how long?" It was a year ago when Sternberg suggested there were five markets better than this one that did not have baseball. Given that, it is easy to wonder if the Rays are closer to moving their franchise than they were then.
"Not at all," he said. "We are dead-set on making it work here. I have not been approached by any other area as far as moving the team, and I would not engage in any discussions about it."
As for those Internet rumors regarding the Mets and the Dodgers? Sternberg dismisses them both as untrue.
Still, the stadium issue will not remain dormant long. No one wants to hear that, but everyone knows it.
"Back in 2006, someone was talking about five years," Sternberg said. "I expected by 2011 we would be playing in a new place. We could be going into it this year. We had done all the necessary work. Obviously, it didn't go anywhere. We're a number of years behind. That part is frustrating.
"Every year that goes by increases the possibility that we won't be here. We can't keep kicking the can down the road. I'm not a guy who kicks the can down the road. If there is something inevitable, you have to deal with it. At some point, my partners in baseball are going to throw their hands up in the air and say 'enough is enough.' "
Sternberg shrugs again. Once again, he smiles.
"I'm optimistic about us being in Tampa Bay," he said. "I'm optimistic about finding a solution in Tampa Bay that allows the team to be competitive, vibrant and take the 400,000-500,000 people a night to a higher number. We've ingrained ourselves. We've become a significant part of people's lives during the season. I firmly believe that can translate into what we need to happen."
Good thing, optimism. Fine attribute, faith.
And if Sternberg hasn't given up on Tampa Bay, then perhaps Tampa Bay should not give up on him.
Or, for that matter, serious discussions about a new stadium.