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Mayor: Rays stay put or else

Mayor Rick Baker sent a warning Wednesday after learning that a group of investors working to bring Major League Baseball to Washington, D.C., signed a confidentiality agreement to consider investing in the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

In a letter to a partner of the Washington Baseball group, Baker wrote that the team is legally bound to play in St. Petersburg for years and that the city is not willing to let the team out of that deal.

"Under this agreement, which we will actively protect and enforce, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays will be playing baseball in Tropicana Field through the year 2027, and hopefully beyond that date," Baker wrote to Stephen W. Porter, a partner in Washington Baseball. Baker attached copies of the relevant portions of the stadium use agreement.

Porter's Washington group has an elaborate plan for building a new stadium there and has been in the market for a franchise. The group's partners have a combined personal net worth in the billions. Porter and a different group mounted an unsuccessful effort to bring a baseball team to the Tampa Bay area in the early 1990s before the group led by Vince Naimoli succeeded in getting an expansion team.

Porter denied Wednesday that his group wants to move the Rays to D.C., despite the signed confidentiality agreement his group sent to the Devil Rays to gain access to confidential team information "in connection with the potential purchase of an equity interest" in the team. The St. Petersburg Times obtained a copy.

"I know what the lease says," Porter said. "There hasn't been any discussion whatever about relocating the franchise. We can't. We absolutely can't. We have no right to move the Devil Rays."

So why buy into the Rays, then?

"Our team has been advised it wouldn't be so bad for us to buy a minority interest in a baseball team," Porter said, just to improve the group's relationship with Major League owners and increase its chances of getting another franchise for Washington.

Washington Baseball partner Fred Malek, who signed the confidentiality agreement, formerly owned a stake in the Texas Rangers at the same time President George W. Bush did.

Naimoli announced in April that the team would hire an investment banker to explore a possible sale of the Devil Rays. Though Naimoli said there have been "quite a number" of groups interested in buying the team, no banker apparently has been hired.

Devil Rays vice president and general counsel John Higgins corroborated Porter's account.

"Relocation was never any part of any discussion with Stephen Porter and was not going to be," Higgins said Wednesday. "They contacted us about a possible equity participation in the existing Tampa Bay Devil Rays, which play at Tropicana Field."

Higgins added that the team requests a confidentiality agreement before talking with any potential investor, and that since the agreement was returned June 14, the Rays have decided not to talk further with the Washington group.

"At this point in time, we have no interest in going in that direction," he said.

Naimoli said Sunday that he has no plans to sell his controlling interest and is committed to keeping the team in the Tampa Bay area.

The city's lease with the Rays prohibits the team from "any agreement or negotiations directly or indirectly for the use of any facility other than the dome for the home games of the franchise," and it allows the city to get an injunction to prevent that.

But Baker did not write a letter to the Rays on Wednesday.

"The comments made by Vince were that they weren't having any conversations with them," Baker said.

_ Times staff writer John Romano contributed to this story.