Surprised by Braves' bid for spring training, MLB backs Tampa Bay Rays

An artist's rendering of a proposed sports facility on St. Petersburg's Toytown landfill, including a spring training home for the Atlanta Braves. [SportsPark Partners LLC]
An artist's rendering of a proposed sports facility on St. Petersburg's Toytown landfill, including a spring training home for the Atlanta Braves. [SportsPark Partners LLC]
Published Sept. 26, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — Major League Baseball on Friday threw its support behind the Tampa Bay Rays in the club's sudden turf war with the Atlanta Braves.

MLB issued a statement favoring the Rays' quest for a new stadium over recently hatched plans by the Braves to build a spring training facility in mid Pinellas County.

The league statement said neither its New York offices nor the Rays knew anything about the Braves proposal until this week.

The "most pressing need" is building a "major-league quality" stadium for the Rays, the statement read.

The two-paragraph statement included what could be read as a warning to Pinellas County officials who recently ranked the spring training project — developed by the Braves in partnership with St. Petersburg developer Darryl LeClair and former baseball star Gary Sheffield— as the top of three bids to develop Toytown, a 241-acre former landfill.

"Major League Baseball is committed to working with the Rays to secure a new ballpark in cooperation with the Tampa Bay region," the statement said. "This can only happen with the support of local political and business leaders."

Toytown is one of the few parcels big enough in Tampa Bay to hold a new baseball stadium. There's also a finite amount of tax revenue that could be used. If the Braves project gets approved, it could limit local options for the Rays.

Many county leaders embraced the Braves project. One of them, County Commissioner Ken Welch, said he didn't see why the two prospects were mutually exclusive.

He'd like to see a deal struck with the Rays. But another spring training in Pinellas County is a big deal, too.

"We can multitask," he said. "We can't say no to all other future opportunities."

The Rays had kept silent about the Braves' plans since the Times broke the news Tuesday. But shortly after MLB issued the statement, Rays president Brian Auld quickly echoed the league's stance.

"The Rays appreciate MLB's attention to this matter," Auld said. "We fully agree with and support their statement."

The Braves didn't respond for comment. Neither did LeClair nor Sheffield.

It's not clear if the MLB statement swayed members on the St. Petersburg City Council, which must approve a deal with the Rays that would allow the team to look for stadium sites in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

Council member Jim Kennedy said the MLB's opinion doesn't alter his stance. He voted against a deal last year that would have allowed the Rays to look across the bay. He wants the team to build a new stadium in St. Petersburg and he laments the lack of "unity" among city leaders to hold the Rays to a contract that keeps them playing at Tropicana Field through 2027.

Yet Karl Nurse, who voted for the failed deal, said the Toytown project was an alarm bell for the City Council to resolve the deadlock.

"It would be a dereliction of duty for us to sit on the sidelines and not work out something for the Rays," Nurse said. "If we do nothing, we'll wake up one morning and read in the newspaper that the Rays are moving to play in Montreal."

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Mayor Rick Kriseman said that while the city has a century-old history of spring training, his focus is on the Rays.

"We are now a major-league city with a major-league quality of life and world-class amenities," Kriseman said in a statement.

The Braves want to leave their current facility near Orlando when the lease expires in 2017. The team's president, John Schuerholz, has said the team doesn't want to remain in Central Florida where only one other major-league franchise is nearby — the Detroit Tigers, who train in Lakeland.

The club is also considering moving to the east coast. In July, Schuerholz talked to Palm Beach Gardens, which had negotiated with the Houston Astros and Toronto Blue Jays before a plan to build a joint facility broke down last year, according to the Palm Beach Post.

Schuerholz has also inquired with Palm Beach County officials about joining the Astros and Washington Nationals in a West Palm Beach facility set to open in 2017. The Braves trained in West Palm Beach from 1962 to 1997.

Like Toytown, the West Palm Beach facility is on a landfill, the newspaper said.

Contact Charlie Frago at or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.