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Which do the Rays want: a split season or a new ballpark?

Pinellas County and St. Petersburg officials say they’re not interested in building the ball club a new stadium for half a season.

ST. PETERSBURG — The Tampa Bay Rays must decide what’s more important: a new stadium or a split season.

Would the team rather get public dollars for a new ballpark, or would it rather split its home games between St. Petersburg and Montreal, an idea that Major League Baseball gave the organization permission to explore?

Some key Pinellas leaders, shocked by Thursday’s announcement, say the team can’t have both. If the Rays want taxpayer money for a flashy new venue, they say, it needs to commit to a monogamous relationship.

“I am not open to funding a part-time stadium where our home team is shared with another city,” said Pinellas County Commissioner and 2021 St. Petersburg mayoral candidate Ken Welch. “That is probably a bridge too far in terms of county funding, in my opinion.”

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Hillsborough County leaders also didn’t know what to make of the proposal.

“ ... This idea of playing part of your season in Montreal and part of your seasons here, I just can’t put my arms around it, how we would try to make that work,” said Commissioner Les Miller. “I had a conversation with (Rays president) Brian Auld about it and he said that Montreal would get a new stadium, a smaller stadium, to play in and the Tampa Bay area would get a new stadium to play part of the season here.”

Pinellas leaders, though, say that’s not their plan.

Their plan has always been simple: Tropicana Field, built to spec in the late 1980s, quickly became obsolete as the only domed big-league ballpark without a retractable roof. For years the Rays have wanted a new, modern and more lucrative stadium. Pinellas County officials set aside money collected through the tourism tax to help finance a new stadium for if and when the Rays commit to building it in St. Petersburg. That funding source could generate hundreds of millions of dollars for a ballpark. That’s what separates Pinellas from Hillsborough County, where there is no more appetite for publicly-funded sports venues.

But Pinellas can only wait so long. The Trop will likely be torn down in the coming decade, and officials are excited to redevelop the 86-acre site. There is also no shortage of projects vying for the dollars being set aside for the Rays. And until Thursday, that was all riding on the assumption that taxpayers would fund a whole new stadium in exchange for a whole season, 81 home games.

The Montreal proposal sends that formula into disarray.

“I have less interest in being a partner when apparently in that scenario, Major League Baseball and the Rays have less interest in St. Petersburg,” said County Commissioner Dave Eggers. “So when you’re talking about splitting that, you’re talking about relatively less interest.”

St. Petersburg City Council members Darden Rice and Ed Montanari said they, too, would have a hard time asking in good conscience for the public to pay for a new stadium that would only host 40 games a season.

“That’s a nonstarter,” said Rice, who is also expected to run for St. Petersburg mayor.

Financing a new stadium becomes nearly impossible without public money. Lack of public financing is what sank Hillsborough County’s efforts to lure the team to a Ybor City site. And it’s unlikely the Rays could, or would, do it alone — principal owner Stu Sternberg initially promised to contribute $150 million to build a Tampa ballpark, about 17 percent of the projected $900 million price tag. He later said he would commit more, but never gave a figure.

The Rays on Friday again declined to comment on the split-season proposal. But team officials said they’ll hold a news conference on Tuesday.

There’s a more immediate problem, however. As far as Major League Baseball is concerned, a split schedule could start as early as 2023. But the Rays’ Trop lease forbids the team from even talking about playing anywhere else until after the 2027 season. That means if anyone in the Rays’ executive suite were to pick up a phone to call a Montreal city official about logistics, the team would be in violation of the contract.

That is, unless St. Petersburg’s City Council and Mayor Rick Kriseman grant the team permission to explore a split-season — which Kriseman has emphatically declared he will not do.

And so, if nobody is willing to budge, the team and St. Petersburg are at an impasse: the Rays need taxpayer help to build a new stadium, but it won’t get that help so long as it clings to the split season concept.

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A potential compromise could involve Al Lang Stadium, where the Rays tried and failed to build a new stadium in 2008. The team has already said it wants to build a smaller stadium — the blueprints for the Ybor City stadium called for 30,000 seats, smaller than most Major League ballparks. Would both sides be willing to expand and upgrade Al Lang to host 40 games a year?

That could cost considerably less than building a new stadium, but any attempt to alter the downtown waterfront requires a voter referendum. The Tampa Bay Rowdies got voters to approve an $80 million expansion of Al Lang were Major League Soccer to grant St. Petersburg an expansion team (the league never did, however.) The Rays now own the Rowdies and operate Al Lang.

But Kriseman has called any proposal involving a 40-game home season “silly,” dismissing the Montreal idea as a negotiating ploy.

Rice said renovating Al Lang could be enticing. She would also support other measures to keep the Rays in Tampa Bay, such as blessing another memorandum of understanding between St. Petersburg and the team that would allow it to keep searching for a Hillsborough stadium solution before 2028.

“I can’t imagine why we wouldn’t discuss that like adults," she said. “And I would not use the word ‘silly’ to describe anyone’s efforts to bring a solution to the table that addresses this.”

Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long called the Rays “excellent corporate citizens” and said local officials should keep finding ways to keep the team here.

“It seems to me it’d be in the best interest of everyone to find a way to make this a win-win,” she said.

What happens next depends on the Rays. What will team officials say on Tuesday?

Said Eggers: “I think the Rays need to make a big boy decision and decide where they want to be, and commit 100 percent to that area.”

Times staff writer Anastasia Dawson and senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Josh Solomon at jsolomon@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4613. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.

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