Rays’ Tampa Bay-Montreal plan: Beyond the initial hurt, see the positives

They didnít do a good job with the rollout, but the idea has some merit
Rays fans, shown here watching a 2018 game against Toronto from the Rays tank, will have a lot to process in coming days. [Times files (2017)]
Rays fans, shown here watching a 2018 game against Toronto from the Rays tank, will have a lot to process in coming days. [Times files (2017)]
Published June 24

There’s a way to deliver bad news.

There’s a way to ask someone to consider a proposal with adverse possibilities.

There’s a way to convince someone to sacrifice for a greater good.

Perhaps you share the information over dinner. Maybe you preface it with some cautionary advice:

You better sit down. Take a deep breath.

Before I tell you this, promise you’ll hear me out. Promise you’ll keep an open mind.

[ MORE RAYS: What's happening to the proposed Ybor City site ]

The Rays did not employ any of those methods in delivering their proposal to split future home games with Montreal. Allowing news of its unconventional and nearly unprecedented idea to slip out of a MLB owners meeting in New York could not have been a worse approach. Dismay and doubt had no choice but to follow the shock and surprise.

I’m told it made no sense to broach the subject without first getting the approval of owners. Perhaps, but even suggesting the feelings of billionaire owners matter more than the community and its loyal baseball fans makes the idea less palatable.

We didn’t need a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, we needed a five-pound bag.

On Tuesday, team leaders will look to calm the roiling waters of Tampa Bay at a media event at the Dali Museum, but the cynicism surrounding their proposal started seeping through the museum’s geodesic dome minutes after they announced the event. The team’s rollout simply created another hurdle when it already faced steep odds.

Now, it must be honest in its dealings with the community. I expect a bit of rah-rah hype, but they also need to speak with real honesty. It’s time all involve face some difficult truths we’ve tried to ignore during this saga.

[ MORE RAYS: A peek behind the curtain of the Montreal plan ]

First and foremost, this community reneged on the promise it made Stu Sternberg when he assumed control of the Rays in 2005. Almost everyone told him back then if he put a winner on the field, fans would arrive in droves, games would sell out and everything would be right about baseball in the bay.

He held up his end, the community didn’t.

Sure, we can recite the litany of reasons: recession, transportation, location, facility. To paraphrase Earth, Wind and Fire, in the morning when we rise, our reasons have no pride.

We must accept a cold reality: maybe this market can’t fully support three major sports franchises. Maybe the lack of corporate headquarters, low wages and fixed incomes mean while we love to watch “our teams” on the television, we don’t have enough disposal dollars to prop up the Bucs, Lightning and Rays.

Why not add another option, albeit unconventional and surreal, to the mix of possible solutions? As a region, we’ve had every opportunity to prove baseball could work in this market. To date, we’ve failed.

If you swallow and hard and concede these troubling realities, the idea of a shared team doesn’t seem so horrible.

Here’s another truth: we have competing needs in this community, and the idea of pouring $900 million into a stadium when we have greater priorities doesn’t make sense. The same reasons that hinder attendance at the Trop would hinder attendance in a new stadium, especially if it’s in the same location.

In fact, we don’t even know if MLB owners would approve a new stadium on the same site. Exhibit A in the argument against a new Trop would be the failing Marlins Park in Miami.

The Rays proposal — given that we could build a smaller park for a fraction of the cost — could allow more dollars to go towards those other needs, given some creative financing. Do the math: If the city had to pony up say $175 million for a retrofitted Al Lang Stadium (assume Sternberg would put in an equal amount) to get 35 regular season games and 20 spring training games, isn’t that a better deal than 81 games for $900 million.

Sure, the idea of sharing a team dents civic pride. The vision of the Rays playing the season’s most-exciting games, not to mention the postseason, in Montreal makes the eyes water with sadness. I get it. By the way, they could alternate postseason games year-to-year between the two cities.

[ MORE RAYS: Forget Montreal negotiations. Get real on Rays stadium search ]

Either way, this debate can no longer be about the intangible value of keeping baseball in Tampa Bay (Note: a lot of economists question the tangible value of sports franchises). We can’t again buy into the myth that if we build it, they will come.

No, this decision must now be rooted in what’s best for the overall community. It’s time to explore common sense solutions and remove ego from the equation. Stop worrying about what the nation might think of us if we do the unthinkable. We already do.

We know that with or without baseball, we’re a great place to live. Now we have to decide if a fiscally-sound deal for a piece of the Rays can make us greater. If it can, great. If it can’t, we wish them well and try not to hold a grudge. After all, we had more than 20 years to get it right.

That’s all I’m saying.


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