Selling the Montreal plan may requiring burning a bridge for the Rays

Is Rays owner Stu Sternberg prepared to say today that he has decided Tampa Bay is incapable of being a full-time Major League Baseball market?
Tampa Bay Rays owner Stu Sternberg is seen in the rotunda just prior to the doors opening for the Tampa Bay Rays 2019 home opener against the Houston Astros. (DIRK SHADD  |   Times)
Tampa Bay Rays owner Stu Sternberg is seen in the rotunda just prior to the doors opening for the Tampa Bay Rays 2019 home opener against the Houston Astros. (DIRK SHADD | Times)
Published June 25

ST. PETERSBURG — I am skeptical. The mayor is skeptical. You are skeptical.

It seems fair to say that a lot of people have doubts about the plausibility of a plan to share the Tampa Bay Rays with another city in another country.

The question is how far will the Rays go to change minds?

Is Rays owner Stu Sternberg prepared to stare into television cameras this afternoon and say Tampa Bay is incapable of supporting Major League Baseball full time? Will he say the past has proven it, and the future shows no indication of correcting it?

[ MORE RAYS: Look behind the initial hurt to see the positives of the Rays' Montreal plan ]

Because that’s the one argument that might change minds. The idea that this is the last hope because Sternberg has already decided he will not keep the Rays in Tampa Bay full time. If that’s the case, having 35 baseball games a year doesn’t sound so crummy when the alternative is zero games.

The problem is that argument carries a risk.

A major risk.

If this plan falls apart, and it does involve a high number of potential trip wires, Sternberg will be facing another eight years in a market he has just called hopeless.

It would be like throwing a Hail Mary pass in the third quarter.

Now some might argue that if Sternberg has come to that conclusion about Tampa Bay — and there is certainly some justification for him to feel that way — it’s best to just come out and say it.

But it could lead to one of the nastier divorces in sports history.

If you think attendance is lackluster now, just imagine what it would be like if the owner dissed the market, and the fans knew the franchise had no long-term future.

Former commissioner Bud Selig told me last week that he allowed the Expos to remain in Montreal two years too long before they were finally moved to Washington. And yet an untenable situation in Tampa Bay could linger until the end of 2027 because of the team’s use agreement at Tropicana Field.

One potential solution would be to work out a termination agreement with the city of St. Pete, but it’s hard to imagine that it wouldn’t be a contentious negotiation.

Especially since A) Sternberg said in 2005 that he would never demand a new stadium, B) he’d be leaving without hearing a stadium proposal from St. Pete and C) it would be the quickest exit for a Major League Baseball franchise in more than 50 years.

In other words, there would be a lot of political and community sentiment for St. Pete to squeeze every penny possible from Sternberg, even if it means delaying the potential redevelopment of Trop land.

Another solution would be for the Rays to simply pack up and leave before 2028, but that would trigger a lawsuit from St. Pete, and MLB cannot be enthusiastic about the possibility of having its finances on display in a courtroom.

So what will Sternberg say today?

Best guess is he will blame it on the other owners in baseball. He will say they are tired of providing revenue sharing money to Tampa Bay, and they have already given up on this market.

[ MORE RAYS: Forget Montreal. Forget negotiations. Time to get real on Rays stadium search ]

He will say he has been negotiating in good faith for a new baseball stadium for more than 10 years, and it’s become clear — for whatever reason — that there’s not enough momentum to get it done.

He will say the Montreal plan is an attempt to save baseball in Tampa Bay.

But will he portray this as a binary choice? Will he go so far as to say Tampa Bay can either go along with the part-time plan, or the Rays are outta here?

Is he willing to burn that bridge?

Or, as the case may be, cross that border?

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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