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The powerful piece of paper that is the Tampa Bay Rays lease

The threat begins on page 32 of the document. It doesn't sound scary at all.

And, yet, it is the reason politicians, business leaders and maybe even the commissioner of baseball are careful what they say about a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays.

This brief, four-sentence section is known as the "exclusive dealings'' portion of the stadium use agreement between the Rays and St. Petersburg.

In other words, it is the lock keeping the Rays inside Tropicana Field. And if you doubt its ability to intimidate, you haven't been paying attention.

Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan recently expressed great frustration at the stadium stalemate — and then said he needed to talk to the county attorney. Pinellas County Commissioner Norm Roche also raised the stadium issue with his colleagues — and they all decided to get the county attorney involved.

Even a private group seeking a new stadium for downtown Tampa has danced delicately around the concept of "tortious interference."

Which is exactly what the city had in mind in the early 1990s when its attorneys were studying the leases of other Major League teams while drafting this agreement.

The clause, essentially, forbids the Rays from negotiating to play in any stadium other than Tropicana Field before 2027. And any violation would result in "irreparable harm and damages.''

Translation: We'll sue the jockstrap off ya.

"Did we do our homework?'' asked St. Petersburg City Attorney John Wolfe, who was an assistant city attorney at the time. "Yes, we did.''

What's interesting in retrospect is that it was seen as a one-sided deal for the then-Devil Rays in 1995.

Between debt service and upkeep, the city was spending millions every year, and had an empty stadium to show for it. Either St. Pete signed this deal, or Major League Baseball was threatening to find another expansion city.

City Council members complained about the team getting to keep the bulk of revenues from a public building, but Wolfe said he and then-City Attorney Mike Davis were focused on ensuring a tenant for years to come.

They knew a little something about trying to poach an existing big league team. Tampa Bay had once been linked to efforts to lure the Twins, White Sox, Rangers, Giants and Mariners to town. This agreement was actually drafted a few years earlier for the Giants.

So when it was suggested the Devil Rays document might include an attendance clause that could trigger an early release from the lease, the city refused.

"Our priority was to have the team here. I know a lot of people criticized it for not tapping into other revenue streams,'' Wolfe said. "I think we got the best deal we could for the people of St. Petersburg.

"It's been proven to be a pretty good deal, if what you want is a baseball team.''

So is the exclusive dealings clause ironclad?

If it isn't, it is pretty close to it. The city has sent more than one letter warning others to watch what they say about the Rays moving out of Tropicana.

Bankruptcy might eventually be a weapon for the Rays and MLB. More than likely, a negotiated settlement would come first.

Until then, consider yourself warned.

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

The powerful piece of paper that is the Tampa Bay Rays lease 04/02/12 [Last modified: Monday, April 2, 2012 7:19pm]
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