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Rays hope to play series in Orlando

In an effort to expand their presence in the Orlando area, the Devil Rays are considering moving three regular-season games to the Disney complex.

Talks to shift the May 15-17 games against Texas are still in preliminary stages, officials said, and numerous issues, including approval from Major League Baseball, the players union and the umpires, need to be resolved, but the deal could be completed within a few weeks.

Rays president Matt Silverman said the idea behind the move is to increase regional support for the team and is not a step toward moving the franchise to the Orlando area.

"That's not the reason for considering this," Silverman said Tuesday night. "All of our regional efforts are focused on increasing our fan base throughout the state of Florida and bringing more fans to St. Petersburg and Tropicana Field."

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker said he has spoken with principal owner Stuart Sternberg about the idea and was open to anything that would help the franchise. Baker said he didn't think the Rays planned to make the shift an annual event and wasn't worried that it was a precursor to an eventual move from Tropicana Field, where the Rays are entering the 10th season of a 30-year lease.

As part of any deal, the Rays would have to work out arrangements with the city, as well as season-ticket holders and sponsors, as they would not be playing their full 81-game home schedule at the Trop. They had to make similar deals when they played two 2004 games in Tokyo.

"I'm willing to discuss anything that will make the team stronger, but the city and the season-ticket holders must be treated fairly," Baker said. "They consider St. Pete to be their home, and we are committed to keeping them."

One of Sternberg's goals since taking over in October 2005 has to been to increase the regionalization of the struggling franchise. Though 2006 attendance was up more than 20 percent from the previous season, the total of 1,372,193 was still 29th of the 30 major-league teams.

The Rays have made a deal to shift their spring training base south to Port Charlotte starting in 2009, are working to get more games on television throughout the state, have increased marketing efforts in the Orlando area and consider the potential three-game shift another way to broaden their regional appeal. Other teams have tried a similar tactic, including the NFL Green Bay Packers playing occasional games in Milwaukee and the NBA Boston Celtics in Hartford, Conn. The Bucs have played exhibition games in Orlando, and previous owner Hugh Culverhouse in 1989 considered moving some regular-season games there but dropped the idea based on negative fan reaction.

"We want to cultivate support throughout our region, and the Orlando area is an important part of what we consider our region," Silverman said. "One single effort or event in Orlando won't do the trick, so we're focused on creating a series of events to enhance our presence there in order to turn Orlando residents into Rays fans."

Sports media director Darrell Fry confirmed the Rays have had "preliminary talks" about using The Ballpark at Disney's Wide World of Sports. The spring training home of the Atlanta Braves seats about 9,500 but with berm areas can accommodate about 11,500 and could be slightly expanded further.

The Rangers have traditionally been among the worst draws at the Trop, with season-low crowds of 7,295 and 7,147 in May and an average of 8,751 for four August games.

SIGNING: First baseman Hee-Seop Choi, who played parts of four seasons in the big leagues, signed a minor-league contract that reports in Korea said could be worth $1.95-million over two years if he plays in the majors. Choi, 27, has a .240 career average and hit 15 homers in 2004 with Florida and again in 2005 with the Dodgers. He spent 2006 at Triple-A Pawtucket, hitting .207 with eight homers and 27 RBIs in 66 games.

MINOR MATTERS: Manager Charlie Montoyo and pitching coach Xavier Hernandez are being promoted from Double-A Montgomery to Triple-A Durham and will be joined by coach Gary Gaetti, who was fired in July as Houston's major-league hitting coach. Billy Gardner Jr., who managed last season in the Reds organization, will take over at Montgomery, joined by former big-leaguer Neil Allen as pitching coach and Hector Torres as coach. Dick Bosman is being promoted to minor-league pitching coordinator and Skeeter Barnes to outfield/baserunning coordinator.

UPGRADES: Work has started to replace the Tropicana Field video board with a significantly larger, higher-quality unit.

Staff writer Graham Brink contributed to this report. Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8801. View his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/rays/.

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