ST. PETERSBURG — And so it begins. The dance, if not the departure.
You knew this was inevitable, right? Maybe not specifically that the Rays were going to start flirting with Montreal, but that they were going to do something to make Tampa Bay nervous and jealous.
For more than a decade, the Rays went the conventional route while trying to get a new stadium built. They negotiated with politicians, they met with business leaders, they grumbled a lot about attendance.
And all of that talking added up to zilch.
So now the Rays are taking the next logical step:
That’s not how this will be cast by the Rays or Major League Baseball. They will say the situation in Tampa Bay has left them with no alternative and they are serious and sincere about this idea.
I’m not saying this is a complete bluff. The attendance problems in Tampa Bay are severe enough that the Rays may one day lock the front door at Tropicana Field and never return.
But it ain’t gonna be for this plan.
A polygamous marriage with Montreal would require leaping over a dozen, jaw-dropping hurdles, and it doesn’t look like the Rays can even scale the first one.
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St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman was unequivocal about that. He already told the Rays weeks ago that he wasn’t interested. And since the team is not contractually allowed to negotiate with anyone else about playing in a stadium before 2028, that pretty much kills it.
But here’s what’s weird:
The Rays already knew that. Yet they went ahead and announced this utterly fanciful idea. And that’s what should concern you today.
Yes, a relocation threat is a standard power play in MLB’s stadium-building playbook. But what was the motivation for this odd threat, in this clandestine way, at this random moment?
The Rays are simply trying to fire up ambivalent politicians and CEOs in Hillsborough County, as well as firing a shot across the bow of fans and businesses who aren’t buying tickets at Tropicana Field.
The Rays are methodically setting up their eventual departure in 2028. When the time comes, they could say they proposed a stadium on St. Petersburg’s waterfront, in Tampa’s Ybor City and even a smaller shared stadium with Montreal, and bay area leaders shot down every idea.
I’m not saying the Rays weren’t serious about the waterfront idea in 2007 or the Ybor City plan in 2018, but this daddy-has-another-family idea with Montreal is something completely different. It’s not just farfetched, it is also at odds with the way this ownership group typically conducts business.
They don’t do trial balloons. They don’t ask questions to which they don’t already know the answer. So why propose a deal they already knew looked dead on arrival?
Maybe there’s an ulterior motive here.
Kriseman always has been confident that another stadium could be built in St. Petersburg. That land and financing options would be easier to negotiate on his side of the bay. He told me on Thursday that he still feels that way and has been waiting for the Rays to give him some sense of their interest.
“I do, I truly do think it can be done,’’ Kriseman said. “We’ve identified resources, and we’re ready to talk to the Rays about it. But they have to want it.’’
And if the Rays don’t want to talk about a stadium in St. Petersburg?
Well, chasing this Montreal idea could waste a good chunk of time remaining for a term-limited mayor willing to entertain the idea of building a stadium.
And the Rays could eventually walk away without ever having to officially turn down a bona fide offer of a stadium.
Of course, the Rays could also be setting the wheels in motion to buy out the final years of their use agreement at Tropicana Field, with the argument that redevelopment there should happen as soon as possible for the city’s best interests. Kriseman said he might entertain that notion, but he suggested the price would not be cheap.
If I might make a suggestion:
The cost should be exorbitant.
I’m not suggesting the Rays are villains here. Stu Sternberg has been an exceptional owner for a long time, and he has given Tampa Bay a better baseball team than fan support would indicate.
But this is a gross misstep. Even if the Rays are serious about the Montreal idea, you don’t let the commissioner announce it in New York, then let it sit without comment until next week’s news conference. And you don’t embarrass a hometown mayor and a City Council who did you a favor by handing you a sweetheart deal to negotiate in Tampa four years ago.
Enough of the ducking and weaving. Enough secrecy.
It’s time for the Rays to put their cards on the table.
Do they want to stay in Tampa Bay, and what’s it going to take to make it happen?
Contact John Romano at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow at romano_tbtimes.