TAMPA — Once compared to a corpse, the dream of bringing Major League Baseball to Tampa has suddenly shown signs of life.
On Friday, Kevin King, St. Petersburg’s chief of policy and public engagement, confirmed that the city has no objection if Hillsborough and Tampa want to try again to persuade the Rays to move across the bay after 2027, according to Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill.
"This is good news,” Merrill said. “This is the most positive thing that has happened in a long, long time.”
RELATED STORY: Rays reject Ybor City stadium, remain committed to Tampa Bay
Merrill called King on Friday for an explanation after Times reporters informed him that St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman is disputing the notion that he is blocking Hillsborough from negotiating with the Rays.
Under a use agreement between St. Petersburg and the Rays, the team is required to play at Tropicana Field through the end of the 2027 season.
A deal to play after that in Ybor City fell apart in December and Hillsborough officials have been eager for a second try. But they said during County Commission meetings in June and August that Kriseman had declined to allow it.
Merrill told the Times that Kriseman cited his legal team’s interpretation of the use agreement as a reason to prohibit negotiations about where to play after 2027.
RELATED STORY: Ken Hagan: Ybor City ballpark for Rays may still make sense
At the same time, St. Petersburg has claimed there was no violation of the use agreement with June’s bombshell announcement by Rays owner Stu Sternberg that he had discussed splitting the season with Montreal.
St. Petersburg said the talks between the Rays and Montreal officials had been informal and involved post-2027 scenarios, even though Sternberg said publicly he’d like the split-season arrangement to begin as early as 2024.
When Tampa Mayor Jane Castor was elected in May, she said she’d like to find a way to get the team to her city. Kriseman chided her at the time, saying she “had a lot to get up to speed on.”
His position has apparently changed, said Merrill, who insisted he was personally turned down by Kriseman during a phone call earlier this year.
“Whatever," Merrill said Friday, “it doesn’t matter at this point."
Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, who has led the effort to bring the team to Tampa, was excited by the news. He said he plans to reach out to the team as soon as its playoff run ends.
The Rays are playing the Houston Astros this weekend in the American League Divisional Series.
“I’ll just say I am pleased that Mayor Kriseman is finally showing some leadership and has stopped kicking this can down the road,” Hagan said.
Kriseman’s spokesman Ben Kirby confirmed that King, the St. Petersburg official, spoke with Merrill. Kirby also confirmed that Irwin Raij, an attorney who has been trying to broker a Tampa deal, can call St. Petersburg City Attorney Jackie Kovilaritch.
“Beyond that, we are not commenting on things Commissioner Hagan says right now," Kirby said. "Going to focus on the field and on this playoff team."
Kriseman was in Michigan for a mayor’s conference but released a statement late Thursday saying his position had remained consistent. He disputed Merrill’s account.
“I have great respect for Administrator Merrill but his remarks about post-2027 do no reflect any conversation we’ve had or the realities of the use agreement," Kriseman said.
“I encourage everyone in Tampa Bay to focus on the field of play during this exciting playoff run.”
On Wednesday, Kriseman was asked by a Times reporter why Tampa couldn’t talk to the Rays if Montreal could. The mayor declined to address the question.
"I’m here for the game,” he said repeatedly, while guest-bartending at a downtown St. Petersburg tavern as the Rays played the Oakland Athletics in the American League Wild Card game.
Merrill said Kriseman had previously told him that his city attorneys advised him not to allow Tampa and Hillsborough to talk to the team once a three-year window for them to negotiate had closed in December.
In 2016, Kriseman worked out an amendment to the use agreement that opened the window for negotiations on the Tampa side of the bay.
Mayor Castor told the Times earlier this week she was prepared to “wait patiently” for St. Petersburg to allow Tampa back into the conversation. On Friday, she said she was happy to hear that day has come.
“That’s great news," Castor said in a statement to the Times, “we look forward to future conversations with the county and the Rays on ways we can collaborate to ensure the Rays continue to call the Tampa Bay region home.”
The Rays didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The details of the Hillsborough pitch will remain largely unchanged, Merrill and Hagan said. The Ybor City site is still the preferred one and the financing options are largely the same, although Hagan said the tourist bed tax may play a minor role in the new plan to finance the stadium, estimated last year to cost about $1 billion.
Hagan said he believes the Rays are serious about spending half the season in Montreal, but hopes Hillsborough can convince Sternberg to ditch Montreal.
“Certainly. Yes,” Hagan said when asked if he considered it part of his mission to make Tampa the team’s full-time home.